Judy Corbett's days as a lawbreaker are finally over.
After eight years of operating a costume-making business out of her North Hollywood home in violation of city zoning laws, Corbett was given a temporary exemption from the statutes last week by a city zoning appeals board.
"Usually, you think about bad guys circumventing the law," she said. "I'm just trying to get a business going."
But Corbett's reprieve is for only two years. If she continues operating her shop after that, she will once again join the growing ranks of other home-based businesses in Los Angeles that violate a ban against commercial ventures in residential areas.
Still, advocates of home businesses call her reprieve a small victory in a battle that could otherwise have ended with authorities permanently locking her out of her own business.
There are no estimates of how many home-based businesses like Corbett's operate illegally in the city of Los Angeles. But approximately 2,500 residents each year are turned down by the city's Building and Safety Department for permits to operate businesses from home. The only exceptions allowed by the city are for doctors, dentists and ministers.
Although many cities in Southern California have adopted regulations to permit home-based businesses in residential areas--including Santa Monica, Torrance and Redondo Beach--an effort in the city of Los Angeles to draft similar regulations has foundered for nearly eight years.
And some planning officials say it is uncertain whether the regulations will ever be adopted.
"It may never come to the Planning Commission," said city planner Cora Smith. "It's a whole can of worms."
Planning officials trying to draft the regulations say they are torn between the need to create more local jobs and reduce commuting, and the fear of letting home-based businesses turn quiet residential neighborhoods into noisy commercial zones.
Violators of the residential zoning laws are prosecuted only when neighbors complain. But city officials say such complaints occur very rarely, perhaps once or twice a year.
The effort to regulate home-based business in Los Angeles started in 1985 when the late City Councilman Howard Finn asked the city's Planning Department to draft regulations to allow such enterprises in residential areas.
But it was not until 1990 that the city held its first public hearing on the proposed regulations. The idea was harshly criticized by some residents and planning officials, who said the proposed rules were too liberal. Since then, the proposals have been shuffled among various planning officials for adjustments and revisions.
Although the proposed ordinance remains in limbo, the topic continues to generate heated debate among homeowner groups, planning officials and business owners.
Opponents say they fear allowing home-based businesses would ruin the character of residential neighborhoods by increasing traffic and noise. Unless strict restrictions are adopted, they say the city should continue to prohibit such businesses.
"If a neighborhood is zoned for residential, we don't want business operations out of there," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. "Where do you draw the line--one employee, two employees?"
Planning officials say it is difficult to regulate labor laws and the use of toxic materials in home-based businesses. And they worry that if some businesses are allowed in residential areas, it will snowball out of control.
"If you put a limit, people will always want a little bit more," said Daniel Green, a city associate zoning administrator.
Proponents of the idea of legalizing home-based businesses say it will establish fertile soil for the growth of new ventures, thus bringing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in license fees and taxes. In addition, they say, home-based businesses reduce smog by cutting the need to commute.
In other cities, where such businesses are legal, officials report few problems.
The city of Torrance charges a one-time $109 fee for a home-based business permit. If such fees were charged to each of the 2,500 residents who apply annually for home-based business permits in the city of Los Angeles, that would add $272,500 each year to city coffers.
The statutes adopted by other cities to permit home-based business generally prohibit employees other than the residents, and set limits on visits by customers to control traffic and noise. In short, a business must be compatible with the neighborhood.
Paul Edwards, who has written five books and hosts a radio program on home-based businesses, said if the city does not adopt regulations to permit home-based businesses, such enterprises will simply move to cities that do permit it, taking valuable taxes and fees with them.
"This is one of the major trends in the economy," Edwards said.
Indeed, home-based ventures are the 1990s' return to cottage industries.