Maria Winter thought she could supplement her son's college fund by selling homemade cookies. She has a talent for baking and knows her products are well-received, having made and decorated cookies for students at the elementary school where she teaches.
But when it came time for Winter to fulfill the application requirements and pay the fees associated with launching a home-baked goods business in Somerville, New Jersey, she quickly learned how byzantine the licensing process can be for home bakers.
Somerville officials denied her application for a home business zoning permit, telling her that she needed to secure a zoning variance. According to MyCentralJersey.com, which first reported on Winter's story, the borough said she had to pay a $1,000 application fee and put $4,000 into a borough escrow account. It also required that she publish a public notice in the local newspaper and notify all neighbors within 200 feet of her property that her application would undergo a public hearing. "Going through a public hearing is a lengthy, expensive process," says Rob Peccola, an attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ).
What makes Winter's roadblocks especially mind-boggling is the fact that state requirements for home bakers are so comparatively lenient. The state-issued permit for home bakers—also called cottage food operators—costs $100 and is valid for two years, allowing bakers to sell goods up to an annual gross income of $50,000. "Somerville's requirements are out of step with New Jersey state law and serve no rational purpose," said Peccola in a press release. "They simply keep people like Maria from earning an honest living doing something that is common and legal across the state."
"It's very confusing to me that the state is saying I can do something but my town is saying I can't and can't even give me a reason why," Winter told MyCentralJersey.com. "I'm trying to be an upstanding citizen and nothing is happening. I'm just frustrated."
Until last October, New Jersey was the only state in the country that banned home bakers from selling their goods. Bakers risked fines of up to $1,000 for unlicensed sales. New Jersey's current licensing scheme isn't liberal by any means: Eligible products are limited to a list of 18 food categories (the baker must submit an application to sell anything that falls outside those options), producers can't sell their products at grocery stores, and most states have higher caps on yearly sales. Still, well over 500 cottage food operators have secured permits in New Jersey since the ban was lifted, a sign of the once-stifled entrepreneurial spirit that can now flourish in much of the state.
Somerville may yet catch up to statewide standards. Peccola has sent a letter to Somerville officials urging them to reform licensing policies so that home businesses can flourish. He noted that Somerville's policies make it "almost impossible" to apply for a home baking license, and worse, "would likely be unconstitutional under the state and federal constitution." Somerville Borough Administrator Kevin Sluka has reportedly recommended that the borough planning board review the draconian ordinance that creates a contradiction between Somerville's zoning policies and New Jersey's home baking law.
States have made great strides in recent years to liberalize their cottage food laws, with Oklahoma, Alabama, and Montana among those making it easier for home producers to make a living. Whether Somerville will hang up its half-baked regulatory scheme remains to be seen.