During the global COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen a massive rise in the number of home businesses. While some employees have shifted to a work-from-home model, others have sought new business opportunities as their traditional positions were temporarily suspended to protect local citizens.

Working from home offers individuals several benefits – for example, individuals no longer have to commute and can spend more time with their children. However, some home businesses can negatively impact neighbors and the larger community. That’s why we’ve drafted this outline for people who have been impacted by a neighborhood business and need to protect their rights.

Inspired by the book released by attorneys Emily Doskow and Line Guillen, this article examines the laws that protect both landlords and tenants from disruptive businesses and the actions they can take when a local café, nightclub, or home-operated salon disrupts their peaceful living.

Understanding Your Rights

Can a neighbor run a business?

Most regulations that impact whether individuals can run a business from their homes are found in local zoning laws. According to Doskow and Guillen, zoning laws “are local laws that reflect standard  community values by regulating what type of activity is allowed where.”

You can find zoning laws by doing some research. If you live in a city, you can find zoning maps online or at city hall. If you live outside an incorporated community, zoning laws may not be as accessible. You should check with your county to identify zoning regulations.

How does zoning impact a residence?

In many suburban areas, residents understand that zoning primarily applies to residential living – laws indicate where the operation of a business is prohibited. However, in urban areas, mixed zoning is more common and may include commercial zoning. Commercial zoning often permits the operation of a business, yet the type of business varies according to the identified zoning.

When you purchase a new home, you should review the zoning laws in the surrounding area. Just because your home is zoned residential does not mean that your neighbors are, too. You may be surprised to learn that your neighbor is permitted to operate a specific business on their property. 

Additionally, as a member of the community, you want to watch out for variance requests. These requests indicate that a neighbor is asking the zoning board or city council to allow an activity that is not permitted under current zoning laws. If you learn that the variance is for a business that can impact your peaceful living, you may want to protest it.

Reviewing CC&Rs

If you live in a condo or a community with a homeowners’ association, you should review your covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). These documents outline the laws homeowners in the community have agreed to abide by. Most often, CC&Rs outline if and what type of businesses may operate out of a community. Doskow and Guillen point out that the “CC&Rs of purely residential communities have traditionally prohibited any type of business activity within the community.”

Is The Business A Nuisance, Or Has It Acted Negligently?

In some cases, a business may be operating under the condition of zoning laws; however, you as a neighbor still have rights. You have cause if the business is a nuisance or acting negligently. 

For example, a business may be a private nuisance if it unreasonably interferes with the use and enjoyment of your property. Your state may even have a more definitive term. For example, in California, a public nuisance is defined by California Civil Code 3479 as follows: “Anything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway, is a nuisance.”

If the business is impacting your entire neighborhood, it may be cited as a public nuisance.

A business, on the other hand, may be acting negligently if their careless behavior harms you. For example, a downstairs grocer might neglect to remove ice from the sidewalk outside the store. If you fall as a result, you can claim the grocer acted negligently. 

If a business is acting either way, you have the right to take them to court. However, it is important to note that a judge is unlikely to close down a business. Doskow and Guillen claim, “Many judges who would be quite reluctant to declare a business itself a nuisance may be more receptive to finding a certain owner’s actions negligent.”

What Should Tenants Do?

Tenants in rental homes or apartments are privy to the same legal rights; however, if they are confronted with a problem, their first report should be to their landlord. “All tenants are guaranteed the quiet enjoyment of their rental [as well as] safe, healthy, and habitable premises. Many leases and rental agreements echo this guarantee, but the protections are there whether stated in the lease or not.” If a tenant is disrupted, they can request their landlord to take action. If the landlord takes no action, they have the right to terminate the lease without liability for future rent or breach of contract.

Taking Action as an Offended Neighbor

Early in our series, we outlined actions you can take against a disruptive neighbor. In the case of a disruptive business, the same steps apply:

  1. Find out who else is annoyed: The more people who complain, the heavier the clout.
  2. Know the law: Conduct due diligence on your rights, including zoning laws, noise laws, CC&Rs, and rental agreements.
  3. Complain to your neighbor: Before taking legal action, talk with your neighbor directly. Gather your evidence and present it in a professional manner.
  4. Attempt mediation: If the problem cannot be resolved one-on-one, try mediation.
  5. Notify the authorities: If the problem can be reported to an authority, try that. For example, if the business is breaking a noise ordinance, report it to the police. Or, if the business is breaking a zoning law, report it to the zoning board. Remember, though, to give authorities time to act.
  6. Head to court: As a last resort, take the neighbor to small claims court. This action permits you to impose monetary damages on a business, but you cannot request the business stop operation. Only if the business is breaking the law can it be asked to change its behavior in any way. 

If the law favors the business, and you are having difficulty finding leverage to take action, consider the following:

  • Publicize your plight: Businesses often run on their reputation, and they need to maintain a positive image in the community in order to succeed. If they continue to be a nuisance or negligent in your eyes, take the matter public via the media. This can often prompt the business to listen.
  • Keep an eye on what’s happening: Stay tuned into neighborhood changes. You may not be able to modify the actions of an existing business, but you can have a say in one that is coming soon. Review variance requests and speak up when you feel they may have a negative impact on you.
  • Change the law: Laws are not set in stone, so if you are continually bothered by a business, attend your city council meetings and propose a change in zoning laws.

We cannot change the trends we are experiencing in today’s world, but as a homeowner or tenant, you can ensure that your rights are protected from bothersome home businesses in your neighborhood.

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