Linda Watson has written everything from disaster-recovery plans and expert systems to cookbooks, working as a procedures analyst, project manager, tech start-up manager, and business owner. She’s held all Glenwood Citizens Advisory Council offices and served a term on Raleigh’s Environmental Advisory Board. Now retired, Linda gardens with native plants to welcome pollinators and support biodiversity. 

In an attempt to make it easier for people to start a home business in Raleigh, the City is removing key protections for safe and pleasant residential neighborhoods. The current draft of proposed Text Change TC-12-21 eliminates the Special Use Permit and the anti-nuisance law that keep existing home-based businesses in check.

The draft makes it sound like our neighborhoods will become cheery art fairs, with people repairing watches and selling homemade clothing, artwork, jewelry, and toys. But as a retired procedures analyst and project manager, I’m trained to look for edge cases to see what can go wrong. The changes to the Live-Work zoning could harm your health, disturb your sleep, and sink the value of your home, especially if you don’t live in an area with the additional protection of a Homeowners Association.

Bye-Bye Nuisance Law

Anyone will be allowed to open most types of home businesses by right in a Live-Work Unit, without current restrictions against “excessive noise, vibration, glare, fumes, odors, or electrical interference.”  It will be easy to keep the company humming from 7 am to 7 pm: anyone who lives on the property can work there, as can up to two non-residential employees at any one time.

Imagine the noise and smells if you lived next door to someone:

  • Running a tool-and-die shop to produce metal artwork or toys in a thin-walled garage. The constant thumping of a forging hammer would vibrate your collection of glass poodles right off the shelf.
  • Teaching martial arts or aerobics classes. Try explaining the noise to your boss during the team Zoom meetings.
  • Weaving textiles on a shuttle loom, vintage or modern. Your clients can’t stand the racket, so they find another accountant.
  • Smoking commercial amounts of fish or barbecue. Your hair, your laundry, and even the baby smell like smoke. Your asthma is worse because of the fine particulate matter in smoke.

They Are Selling What Next Door?

General retail will not be allowed, but your neighbors can sell whatever they make on-site, even if you live next to a school. Apparel, toys, and musical instruments are specifically allowed, but the phrase “not limited to” opens the door for everything else. Maybe they decide to make:

  • Specialty lingerie or adults-only gear, with employees to model and sell it. Imagine explaining the allowed sign for “Kitty’s Lace and Whips Emporium” to your kids.
  • Toy archery equipment or paintball guns. Better keep Fido inside.
  • Pipe organs, including melting and pouring lead alloy for the pipes. The fumes would drift out, settling on the grass and vegetable gardens as lead dust. Kids playing next door could get lead poisoning, leading to brain damage, slowed growth, and speech problems.

I’m waiting to have this verified by the Planning Department, but it looks like your neighbor could get a permit to brew beer in the garage, give the beer to employees and guests to drink on the premises, and sell bottles and kegs. Planning has confirmed that the text change would allow you to run a cigar shop for stogies made on-site.

The business can take up half the space in the house or Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), say the entire first floor of a two-story home. Maybe you think the operation will quiet down when forced to close for the night. But how can you tell business activity from the personal life of the residents or the overnight visitors in an ADU being run as an Airbnb rental? The drum circle could go on into the night.

Residential Neighborhood or Strip Mall?

Developers could turn entire residential blocks into strip malls, with a business on the ground floor, an Airbnb flat on the second floor, and a long-term rental unit for the business proprietor.

Unlike for strip malls, however, the developer would not have to provide additional parking spaces for Live-Work Units. If parking gets too tight, the neighborhood can apply to require Residential Parking Permits to discourage long-term parking by those who don’t live there. As I know from living near NC State, this does not guarantee that you or your visitors can find a parking space near your home.

Loading areas and service areas (think dumpsters) will have to be screened, but businesses can meet this requirement by planting evergreen shrubs that are only six inches tall if the mature size is eight feet. Sky Pencil Holly, a popular hedge for this use, grows about ten inches a year.

Leaving Enforcement to the Neighbors

City Planner John Anagnost told the West Raleigh CAC this week that if a business seemed to exceed its limits, neighbors should either talk to the business owner or file a zoning complaint with the City. Don’t call the police.

I don’t want to track the people who come and go at my neighbors to see if the furniture-refinishing shop has too many employees working at a time. I really don’t want to knock on the door of someone who is running an offset printer or a hydraulic punch press after 7 pm to meet a production deadline. Maybe I summon the nerve to ask them to get soundproofing so my baby can sleep. They might reply that they’ve spent thousands of dollars setting up a shop and now it is their only livelihood. No noise means no food for their baby.

Mr. Anagnost didn’t say how quickly zoning enforcement would respond to a complaint that, say, the kickboxing school has thirty students, not five, who are doing drills on the lawn. The next business day? Weeks or months?

A Better Solution

Mr. Anagnost told the CAC that the text change was intended to help people who want to run home businesses by eliminating the $300 Special Use Permit and the review period, during which neighbors can comment on any concerns about the company. Many applicants also hire an attorney to represent them through the process.

Rather than throwing out the permit and the chance to limit excessive noise, odors, and the like, why not improve the current Special Use Permit process?

  • Hire additional staff to process applications and reduce wait time
  • Provide staff consultants to support applicants, reducing the need to hire a lawyer
  • Define criteria for rapid-approval applications, such as businesses that are unlikely to disturb the neighbors
  • Continue to allow neighborhood input during the permit-review process
  • Importantly, prevent neighbor-to-neighbor conflict by rejecting noisy, smelly, or dangerous businesses before the owners invest in them at an inappropriate location

Please Speak Up to Protect Neighborhoods

Please write to Mayor Baldwin and your City Councilors to ask them to delay voting on Live-Work Units (Text Change TC-12-21) until it protects quiet, safe residential neighborhoods. Allow the public to have more time to consider the potential impact of these changes. A change this large should be a campaign issue for the election in November, not something decided by officials in the third year of two-year terms.

Raleigh’s zoning laws guided the growth of a city often found at the top of “Best Places to Live” lists. They protect us from inconsiderate neighbors. They give us the confidence to buy a house or sign a lease because we can roughly predict what the surroundings will be like in the future. Let’s continue to offer a variety of environments to call home, including vibrant mixed-use areas and quiet, family-friendly neighborhoods.