The Arlington County government is considering liberalizing long-standing ordinances that ban the use of home offices by some self-employed persons such as writers, consultants, bookkeepers and artists.
The ordinances, in effect for 50 years, originally were passed to keep noise and traffic out of residential neighborhoods. The ban has proved difficult to enforce, and county officials say they do not know how many illegal home offices currently are maintained in Arlington.
"That's the problem with the ordinance," said Geraldine Whiting, Arlington's commissioner of Revenues. "If you have a law, it should be enforced, and if it's not enforceable, the law should be changed."
At a recent hearing of the County Board, writer Betty Wason was one of 14 people who urged that the rules be changed. She said she was surprised to learn from the county last spring that she had to have a business license to be a writer.
But when she applied for the license, the county had an even bigger surprise for her: Under the zoning ordinance, she couldn't use her home on N. Washington Boulevard as an office unless she also maintained a second office in a commercially zoned area.
"In order to make money as a self-employed person you have to have a business license, and the business license has to have a commercial address -- unless the zoning code makes a specific exception," said Van Caffo, Arlington's zoning administrator. The exceptions are limited to cooks, seamstresses, dressmakers and music teachers who teach only one pupil at a time, he said.
About 10,000 business licenses are issued annually in the county. This year, 250 self-employed residents who had never applied for business licenses and who probably had home offices were notified that the licenses were required. One hundred of the persons applied and were then told about the home office zoning restriction, officials said.
"We would like to see the rule changed," Caffo said.
Several hundred self-employed persons have let county officials know that they consider the zoning rule an unfair financial burden. The Chamber of commerce, Caffo, Whiting and other Arlington officials have also pressed for a change to the zoning ordinance's definitions, scope and regulation of home occupations.
Wason told the County Board that her home office did not generate traffic nor disturb her neighbors, while seamstresses -- who do generate traffic -- are permitted to do business in their homes.
Under consideration is a proposal to include the following home occupations: artists, photographers, sculptors, crafts people, writers, composers, editors and tailors.
Also accountants, architects, bookkeepers, brokers, consultants, contractors, insurance agents, lawyers, ministers and real estate agents who meet other zoning restrictions.
The County Board postponed its vote until Dec. 13.