If you would like to run a business from home or to buy a residential property specifically to convert it into business premises – or indeed on the other side of the coin if you want to object to a new business opening up in your leafy suburb – you should be aware of a recent High Court decision in which a small 8 am – 4.30 pm office was ordered to stop operating in a residential area.  The Court addressed questions such as “Who can apply for an interdict?”, “Does a pending rezoning application make any difference?”, “Must the business be causing a nuisance?”, “What difference does it make that the suburb’s residential character is already changing?” and “What if other property owners are also breaking the law by operating under the radar and getting away with it?”

“It is unquestionable that an owner of land is not permitted to perform activities which contravene the restrictive title conditions or the zoning restrictions” (extract from judgment below)

You decide to open a home business, or perhaps you are about to buy a house in order to run a business from it. You apply for rezoning but the council is taking forever to decide (although it has happily started charging you rates and taxes on the business tariff), your immediate neighbours are supportive, you won’t cause any nuisance, you know of many other businesses operating undisturbed “under the radar”, and anyway the suburb’s residential character has been eroding for years. Surely you are safe to just go ahead and open your business?

On the other side of the coin, perhaps you bought your dream house in a leafy suburb, secure in the knowledge that its residential character is protected by strong and effective zoning laws. Then businesses start moving in – what can you do about it?

A recent High Court decision addresses both questions directly…

A suburban office and the interdict application

  • A construction company opened an administrative office in a suburban area, manned from 8 am to 4.30 pm on weekdays by a staff of four (with the occasional visitor). 
  • Three complainants in the suburb, objecting strongly to this move, applied to the High Court for an interdict against the running of any business on the property. They had, they said “acquired their properties with a keen expectation of residing in a residential suburb with amenities that are consistent with a residential suburb and with a residential character” – sentiments which will no doubt resonate with many other home-buyers.
  • Critically, one of the restrictive conditions in the offending property’s title deeds read “this erf shall be used for residential purposes only and no trade or business or industry whatsoever shall be conducted thereon”. That, said the Court, rendered the property’s usage illegal. Full stop.

All the defeated defences

The property owner and the business (let’s refer to them together as “the business” for simplicity) raised a series of defences to the interdict application, all of them rejected by the Court on essentially the same ground that “the use or continuation to use the property for any business or trade other than for residential purposes constitutes an illegal act” –

  • The suburb’s character had been changing over the years with businesses moving in, including a large shopping mall. Not relevant.
  • The business had applied to the local council for re-zoning and removal of the title deed restriction over a year before, no objections had been received and it had in fact been supported by at least one neighbour. Not relevant.
  • Although the rezoning application had yet to be granted or declined, council was already collecting rates and taxes payable by business and commercial properties. Not relevant.
  • The office caused no nuisance to anyone in the area. Not relevant.
  • Other property owners in the area were also in contravention of the law. Not relevant.

Who can object and who can’t?

The business also argued that only property owners living “in close proximity” to the office had any right to object. That, it said, excluded not only the complainant who was not an owner (she lived with her parents) but all three of the complainants because they all lived about a kilometer away from the office. 

No problem, said the Court, “the essence of town planning schemes is conceived in the interest of the community to which it applies” and the complainants lived “in an area affected by an applicable zoning scheme”. All the complainants had “protectable interests” and therefore locus standi (in plain English, the ‘right to bring a legal action’) and were entitled to enforce their rights under the planning scheme.

The interdict and the request to suspend it

“Once it is accepted”, quoted the Court from an earlier judgment “that the nature of the right in question is a public right, then it must follow … that for continuing infringements of that right the only effective remedy is an interdict, all the more so where such infringements amount to an offence.” Final interdict granted with costs.

Finally, the Court rejected a request by the business to suspend the application of the interdict. The business had been continuing to act in an unlawful manner for at least fifteen months, it was “hell-bent to do so without the necessary relaxation of the restrictive conditions” and to suspend the interdict would be to support or give approval “to an ongoing illegality which is also a criminal offence … tantamount to the subversion of the doctrine of legality and undermining of the rule of law”. The business “must be brought into line immediately when such matters are brought to the attention of the court.” Interdict effective immediately.

Owners – must you always rezone?

Have your attorney check what title deed restrictions your property is subject to, what your current zoning is and what it allows and doesn’t allow. Your local town planning scheme may perhaps let you run a small scale “home enterprise” or “micro business” either without any municipal consent (there will be conditions attached) or with a municipal permit. Or you may need to formally apply for rezoning and removal of title deed restrictions. Every local authority will have its own rules on this and the important thing is to comply with them or risk unhappy neighbours applying to close you down.

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