Oak Bluffs revamps enforcement of home business regulations

Tilton Rental is one of several businesses that have generated complaints to the Oak Bluffs building inspector. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The town of Oak Bluffs will establish a comprehensive database of companies that do business in the town, including home businesses licensed by the town, so that it can enforce local bylaws, and collect license fees. Work on the database is underway, town officials said.

Town administrator Bob Whritenour said it appears Oak Bluffs failed to regulate businesses according to existing bylaws, failed to keep adequate records of local businesses, and lost out on permit and fee revenue, over the past several years.

Currently, different town departments work from different and incomplete lists of businesses, including home businesses.

The lax enforcement has sparked a number of complaints to the town, with disputes played out at selectmen’s meetings. Frustrated neighbors have complained to selectmen about commercial vehicles and equipment parked in residential zones, early morning and late night noise from unregistered home businesses, and eroding property values that they blame on unsightly commercial activity.

Selectmen ruled on one such dispute in September of 2011. Neighbors complained that Ednos Carlos Miller was using his home on Leslies Lane to store landscaping material, commercial vehicles, and equipment.

At the urging of the building department, Mr. Miller applied for a special permit. After a hearing in which neighbors complained of noise and prospective property buyers turning away, selectmen denied the application for a special permit.

It is a thorny issue in a small town, often pitting hard-working, well-liked, independent business owners against neighbors who value quiet neighborhoods and picturesque streets.

Acting building inspector Jim Dunn said he is working to change the way the town enforces zoning bylaws, including the home businesses. “Has it been enforced? No,” he said. “I have tried to keep it on the front burner. There are a number of them, quite a number.”

Mr. Whritenour is working with Mr. Dunn and other department heads to centralize current lists and identify those home businesses that have not registered as required, as part of a comprehensive effort to computerize all fees and licensing.

“You have to clearly identify the process before you can mechanize it,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen said. “What I hope to achieve is across-the-board fairness for people who pay their fees, as well as efficiency and the ability to be proactive about collection. If you put everything into a database, you can send out letters and track payments.”

Home sweet home business

Selectmen proposed the home business bylaw at the 2006 annual town meeting, after extensive research by the Community Development Committee, a group that advises selectmen on a variety of issues. Town meeting voters approved the measure by a two-thirds vote. After review by the state attorney general, the home business bylaw was enacted on July 17, 2006.

The premise of the law is simple. It is designed to allow home businesses in a residential zone, as long as the business is mostly invisible to neighbors.

“Such business shall not exhibit any exterior indication of its presence or and variation from residential appearance,” the bylaw states.

The town intended to regulate anyone working out of their home in a residential district. According to members of the community development committee who wrote the bylaw, it covers a lawyer who works out of his home, a contractor who does bookkeeping at a home office, artists who have home studios, or any other commercial activity based in a residential neighborhood.

Home businesses are allowed without a special permit, or “as of right,” under certain conditions.

The regulations require that the business must be inside the home, be operated by the person who owns the home, and can’t produce noise, vibration, smoke, dust, odors, heat, lighting, electrical interference, radioactive emissions or environmental pollution.

It also prohibits storage of material or equipment, including commercial vehicles, or excessive customer or delivery trips, and requires the home business register with the town clerk.

Home business owners can apply for a special permit from selectmen to allow up to three employees on the premises, up to five parking spaces screened from view, or to use up to 750 square feet of space in an accessory building, such as a garage or shed.

The bylaw expressly prohibits retailing, wholesaling, or rental of items not principally produced on the premises.

Owners of legally operating businesses established before Oak Bluffs established zoning bylaws in 1948 are exempt from the regulations.

Exempt businesses, however, must register with the town clerk, and cannot change or expand the business without a special permit.

Rent dispute

One business that has sparked complaints to the building department, zoning boards, and selectmen is Tilton Rentall, on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road near the blinker intersection. The company also does business as Tilton Tents and Party Rentals. It is located in a residential business district.

First established as a short-term rental business for tools and power equipment, Tilton’s later expanded to become one of Island’s largest tent and event equipment rental companies. The company’s web site advertises only tent and party rentals, including dance floors, carpeting, furniture, heaters, generators, lighting, linen, and flatware.

In a letter dated November 15, 2010, building inspector Jerry Wiener, who has since retired, sent current business owner Sandra Lippens a nine-page letter, outlining his preliminary findings, which resulted from extensive legal research from town counsel Michael Goldsmith.

The letter was intended to give Ms. Lippens a chance to respond, before the town made any final conclusions, or considered legal action.

“Complainants have alleged that your employees often load the tent equipment at the Tilton property during the day, and return it in the early morning hours, as early as 2 am,” Mr. Wiener wrote. “Complainants assert that the tents are hoisted up on the telephone poles, power washed, and that the equipment used to support the tents is launched by hand into the rear of transport trucks, causing significant noise.”

The letter documents a long list of apparent violations of the towns zoning bylaws, including the home business bylaw.

“The present zoning bylaw governs residential accessory uses in all districts, and it does not provide for a commercial or business use of the type engaged in by either Tilton Rentall or Tilton Tents,” Mr. Wiener wrote.

Ms. Lippens responded in a letter dated January 18, 2010.

“Tilton Rentall has operated continuously since 1974,” Ms. Lippens wrote. “We have operated under the watchful guidance of three building inspectors: Al Haigazian, Dick Mavro, and Jerry Wiener. Since 1986, we have been granted twelve different building permits. The party rental department began in 1982.”

In her letter, Ms. Lippens said she has taken significant measures to keep the business unobtrusive.

“We have always been respectful of our location and neighbors, erecting stockade fencing to create a more pleasant view and have only removed any trees which were a hazard,” she wrote. “I’ve ordered that when the ‘gate is closed’ there is to be no unloading of metal pipes, no music, no singing, no loud talking. I personally police this from June-September.”

In a telephone conversation with The Times Monday, Ms. Lippens said the zoning dispute was triggered by a 2009 noise complaint.

“Someone complained, a crank complained,” Ms. Lippens said.

She said she has spent thousands of dollars trying to eliminate noise from the business. She also emphasized that the town has given her every building permit she has asked for over the years.

“I don’t have a building here that I have not been issued a permit by the town,” Ms. Lippens. “Now that puts it on them. If you issue a building permit, when you’re not supposed to, it’s not up to me. If they don’t think it’s right, they deny it. We have done all the town asked us to do.”

The dispute is now in the hands of the town, which is considering whether to pursue further action.