New regulations concerning home business activity in Cornwall took effect on July 1 following approval by the town Planning and Zoning Commission. Here are the Chronicle’s answers to some frequently asked questions about the new rules and the debate surrounding them.

What do the regulations say?

The new rules create three categories of home businesses based on their degree of potential neighborhood impact. They are:

  1. Home Office. No non-resident employees, no clients, no deliveries beyond what is normally associated with a residence. No permit required if criteria are met.
  2. Minor Home Business. No more than one non-resident employee, clients by appointment and limited to one per hour, no retail sales, no exterior storage, limit of two parking spaces. Requires zoning permit if criteria are met.
  3. Major Home Business. Two or more non-resident employees, retail sales permitted for products primarily produced on-site, frequent deliveries, and customer visits. May include exterior storage of materials, equipment, or vehicles. Requires special permit and public hearing.

What is it intended to accomplish?

The hope is to encourage more home business activity while maintaining the unique rural character of our town and protecting residential areas from adverse impact.

Why did P&Z feel the need to change the home business regulations now? 

Easing restrictions on home businesses was a key economic development goal of the 2020 Town of Cornwall Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) to support the growing number of Cornwall residents who are self-employed or work from home.

The P&Z has been using the POCD as its guide since it was adopted in January 2020. On page 6 it states:

“Since the last Town Plan in 2010 there have been significant demographic changes in Cornwall with a seemingly inexorable shift towards an aging population. This shift brings with it the specter of an elderly population without the services needed to support its residents in their homes. Cornwall’s population of ‘young workers’ (ages 20-44) declined by 45% between 1990 and 2010. The Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation and other sources cite the lack of local employment and affordable homes as major reasons for the decline in people of working age. Who is going to plow our driveways, help maintain our homes, and provide our emergency services in that not-so-distant future? The goals and actions listed below are intended to create business and employment opportunities in Cornwall without losing sight of the importance of our town’s rural character with its important forest land, natural habitat and wildlife corridors. They are also intended to support the growing number of Cornwall residents that are self-employed or work from home.”

The first two objectives in the Economic Development section of the POCD are:

  • Increase opportunities to allow new businesses to locate here;
  • Make it easier for residents to work from home.

The actions/tasks enumerated in the POCD to accomplish these objectives were:

  • Update Cornwall’s home-based business regulations;
  • Allow low-impact, home-based businesses in residential zones;
  • Consider removing owner-occupancy requirements for certain types of businesses in residential areas.

What actually changed in the regulations/process of applying for home business status?

Under the old regulations homes were for residential use only and required a special permit for business or other use. This put many in Cornwall into technical noncompliance and was rarely, if ever, enforced. Under the new regulations, working from home is explicitly recognized as permissible. They enable residents to operate a home office “by right,” meaning without the need for a zoning permit. The update also allows minor home businesses (as defined above) to be approved via permit only at the discretion of the Zoning Enforcement Officer (ZEO) and to reserve special permits and public hearings for major home businesses.

Why is it controversial?

Critics argue that allowing businesses in residential zones without special permits and public hearings could allow activity detrimental to those neighborhoods and the rural character of the town. Of greatest concern to many is what they consider a loose definition of a minor home business that fails to address such specific issues as noise levels, increased traffic, and types of businesses, especially manufacturing. Most of those against the new regulations have voiced the opinion that special permits and public hearings are not onerous obstacles and would help prevent unwanted activities.

Public comments also frequently criticized the new regulations for giving the zoning officer too much discretion to grant permits to home businesses deemed to be minor.

During a recent meeting, ZEO Karen Nelson confirmed that under both the old and the new regulations she has wide discretion to deny applications for zoning permits if she believes that it could endanger the health, safety, and welfare of Cornwall’s citizens. Such a finding would force the applicant to reapply for a special permit and have a public hearing.

A few critics have questioned whether the ZEO and P&Z even have the authority to deny a zoning permit to a minor home business that meets the stated requirements and re-classify it as a business requiring a special permit. David Sherwood, a land use attorney and faculty member of the University of Connecticut School of Law who has been retained by one local citizen, contends that the commission does not have such discretion, even if in its opinion the business would have a potentially negative impact on a residential neighborhood.

Some also believe that comments from the public were not adequately addressed in the process of developing the new rules. They claim that the public hearing process was faulty for several reasons, including that the town planner was not present, that discussion of the issues was cut short by the chair, and that the new provisions conflict with other zoning regulations.

Are there side issues affecting the resolution?

Some opponents of the revised regulations maintain that they are being imposed by outside influence, specifically that of the Northwest Hills Council of Governments, a coordinating body of elected officials from 21 towns in our region. They have expressed the opinion that Cornwall’s unique identity is threatened by cooperative efforts to regularize and regionalize what ought to be autonomous town policy.

Where do things stand today?

Sherwood filed a lawsuit in Litchfield Superior Court seeking to nullify the new regulations based on what he describes as a variety of procedural and substantive errors. The complaint alleges “the Planning and Zoning commission acted illegally, arbitrarily and in abuse of the discretion vested in it.” The legal documents can be found here:

A Cornwall Appeal Fund has been created so that like-minded neighbors can help fund the effort to challenge the decision of the P&Z.  The town intends to defend the decisions of the P&Z. The Chronicle will update this Q&A as more information becomes available.

—Bob Meyers & Chronicle Directors

📷: Roberto Nickson / Unsplash