Thursday, September 27, 2007

I was wrong: Ebay legal in Amherst, unless...

This afternoon I got a definitive answer on when you do or do not need permits to buy and sell stuff on Ebay from your house:

The other day you met with Bonnie Weeks and me to discuss whether such a business might be possible under certain circumstances and if so, what would be the permitting requirements for a business of this type. Here is our understanding of the situation:

1. Is it a business?

You have asked if buying and selling used items out of your home wouldbe considered a business. The answer is "yes" if you are doing this buying and selling for profit. (We did not say that buying and selling your own property or "stuff" on EBay would not be a business.)

2. Selling on EBay vs. Garage Sales

You asked how buying and selling on EBay was different from a garage sale. The response was that garage sales usually entail people selling items that they or others have owned and no longer need or use to people who visit the premises to conduct their purchases. Garage sales are not a continuous use and usually only last about 1 or 2 days and occur once or twice a year.

3. Deliveries

You have said that you are planning to buy and sell on EBay and that you will not have customers come to your home. You have told us that you will be using the U.S. Postal Service and other delivery services (such as UPS) for delivery of the items to and from your home and that you will also be going to the Post Office with items that you are selling.

4. Details of the Business

We asked you about the details of your business, i.e. the volume of business, the size and number of items that you might be selling, the traffic that might be generated by the delivery trucks coming and going and other issues that might be bothersome to your neighbors. You were not specific in your answers to these questions. In evaluating how your proposed use will be regulated under zoning, we will need specific estimates for each of these issues.

5. Special Permit for a Home Occupation

Section 5.013 of the Zoning Bylaw authorizes the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant a Special Permit for a Home Occupation, an accessory use to a principle residential use, which generally includes such things as the workroom of an artist, craftsperson, cabinetmaker, etc. While your proposed business does not fall neatly under this category, it appears to be the closest category in the Bylaw to encompass what you are proposing to do. Obtaining a Special Permit for a Home Occupation requires you to submit an application and accompanying documentation describing your business. It requires that your neighbors be notified and it requires the holding of a public hearing. The whole process takes approximately three (3) months, including the appeal period, and costs $150.00, plus $25.00 for an abutters (neighbors) list. The
$150.00 and the $25.00 are one-time fees, assuming that you receive and act on your permit within two years (that is, if you begin to operate your business and continue to operate it). If you do not act on your permit within two years and you still wish to conduct the business you will need to apply for a new (renewal) permit. If your business changes substantially you will also need to apply for a new (modified) permit. This would entail paying the fees again.

6. Office or Studio

Section 5.012 of the Zoning Bylaw allows the use of a portion of a house as an accessory office for a member of a recognized profession, such as doctor, lawyer, etc., without a Special Permit. It does not appear that your proposed business would fall under this category since you do not propose to operate your office as a member of a recognized profession. What you are proposing is closer to a mail-order business.

7. Second Hand Sales License

In addition to any permit that may be required from the Zoning Board of Appeals, there is a permit required by the Town's General By-Laws to operate a business that deals with the selling of used articles. This Second Hand Sales License can be obtained from the Select Board. We understand that the fee for this license is $75.00, and that the permit needs to be renewed annually.

8. Management Plan

If you wish to pursue buying and selling used items on EBay from your home we recommend that you draft a Management Plan for your business and submit it to Bonnie Weeks, Building Commissioner. The Management Plan should include the following information:

* Location of business

* Description of the type of business, including a description of the type, approximate size and number of items to be sold

* Hours of operation

* Number of employees

* Frequency of deliveries to and from the property by UPS or other delivery service (i.e., once a day, once a week, etc.)

* Description of how you propose to handle trash and recycling, including the frequency of pick-up

* Parking required to operate the business, if applicable

* Lighting, including location of lights and hours of operation of lights

* Signage, if applicable

* Landscape maintenance

* Snow removal

* Equipment to be used in the business

* Noise generated by the business

* Storage of materials and equipment associated with the business.

Based on a written Management Plan, including information on all of the categories listed above, Ms. Weeks will determine whether or not you need a Special Permit for a Home Occupation. She is the Zoning Enforcement Officer for the Town of Amherst.

I hope this is helpful. Please contact me or Bonnie Weeks if you need further clarification.

Chris Brestrup
(scroll down if you're curious about the process for properly licensing a home-based Ebay business in Amherst).

So "engage in the business of" means "sell for a profit." So I'm OK, as long as the stuff I sell on Ebay sells for less than the price I paid for it. Good to know. I wonder if I'm allowed to use inflation-adjusted prices (if I sell a Star Wars action figure I bought for $3 in 1977, and sell it for $25 in 2007...)

I feel a little dirty. Just the other day I implied that Larry Kelly was wasting state employee time filing ethics complaints, and here I go and cause who knows HOW much town employee time on this one little question. I didn't mean to; I expected a quick, simple answer like the one I got from Northampton...

Yay Amherst Public Works!

In a previous blog post, I said that Guilford Mooring is my favorite Town employee. I think the entire Public Works department deserves praise for their quick response to problems that have been brought to their attention:
  • Painting crosswalks in front of the Chinese Charter School
  • Adjusting the traffic cushions on Lincoln Avenue
  • Fixing the potholes on Hulst road
Thanks! I know I suffer from negativity bias-- I tend to complain about things I don't like, but keep quiet about things I do like. Maybe it's the computer programmer in me, always looking for software bugs to be fixed...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Northampton 1, Amherst 0

Northampton, like Amherst, has special regulations for dealing in second-hand stuff. A while ago, I asked the Powers That Be in Northampton a similar question to the one I asked of Amherst:
If I were to buy and sell "secondhand articles" on Ebay.... would this city ordinance apply to me?
§ 202-7. License required.
It shall be unlawful for any person to be a collector of, dealer in, or keeper of a shop for the purchase, sale, or barter of rags, paper, old metals, junk, or secondhand articles without first obtaining a license from the City Council as provided in Chapter 140 of the Massachusetts General Laws. No person shall purchase or receive by barter within the limits of this City any of the articles mentioned above without first procuring such a license.
I guess the question is: what's the definition of a "dealer in" ? Is there some dollar amount that would make me a dealer in secondhand articles?
The next day I got this reply:
In order to be licensed for secondhand articles, you would need to have a place of business, that would be zoned for this type of business and file a Business Certificate. A dealer in second articles is a person who buys and sells second hand articles, such as used clothing, used books, records, etc., there is no dollar amount associated with being a secondhand dealer. The license fee for a secondhand dealers license is $25.00 a year, and the business certificate fee is $50.00. The business certificate is good for four years.

Wendy Mazza
City Clerk
Just to be sure, I asked:
So... am I allowed to buy and sell used articles on Ebay, through the mail, out of my home? Or does this apply only to "walk-in" businesses, with customers that come to a storefront?
... and got this reply 10 minutes later:
This would only apply to walk-in businesses, with customers that do come to a storefront.
The only way you would need to have a second-hand license is if you had to file a business certificate to set up a business checking account and the bank required you to provide them with necessary documentation that you where in business.

Wendy Mazza
So: two emails to one person in Northampton and a day later I get a "yes, you are allowed."

I first sent essentially the same question to Amherst Town Hall on September 5'th. 20 days later, it's bounced around to the following people in the Amherst bureaucracy (these are all the people cc:ed on the dozen or so emails I've sent/received on this, so far):
Patricia J Olanyk, Larry Shaffer, Gail Weston, Chris Brestrep, Caroyln Holstein, Bonny Weeks, Jonathan Tucker, and the entire Amherst Select Board.

And I'm still waiting for a straightforward answer to my original question, which maybe I can restate here: "Under what conditions does buying and selling used stuff from my home constitute a 'business', for which I need to get permits and stuff?"

Three Months and $225 Ain't Friendly

I'm going to introduce an article for next spring's Town Meeting to repeal the town bylaws regulating "Dealing in Used Articles," but before I do, I decided to do my homework and make sure it really says what I think it says.

So I sent this question to
The town bylaws state:

"2. No personal shall engage in the business of buying or selling second-hand articles within the limits of the town of Amherst unless he is duly licensed by the selectmen."

What does "engage in the business of" mean? If I buy and sell used articles out of my house, am I engaging in business? Or does this bylaw apply only to businesses that have public storefronts?
Holy Bureaucracy, Batman! I didn't expect such a simple question to generate a little blizzard of activity from Town Hall!

First stop was Patricia J Olanyk, in the Town Clerk's office. She referred my question to the Select Board's office, and told me that I might also have to file a "Doing Business As" certificate with their office. I don't think that applies to buying and selling stuff on Ebay, although maybe it does-- I don't use my real name as my Ebay nickname. I'm still looking for an answer to "what does 'engage in the business of' mean?", so I press on.

According to Jonathan Tucker in the planning department:
This is a fairly straightforward business licensing, similar to a liquor license, a license to operate coin-operated amusement devices, etc. This is listed as “Second-Hand Sales” on an old 1997 list I have of Select Board licenses and permits. The licensing is, I believe, intended to help prevent unregulated dealing in second-hand articles with an uncertain or illegal origin. From the listing I have, it appears that after receiving a recommendation from the Police Department, the Select Board holds a public hearing to hear from the applicant. Both the Select Board and the Police Dept. must approve the application which, following approval, is signed by the Police Chief or his designee. There’s a $75 fee for the application. There should be copies of the application form and copies of past applications in the Select Board files. I’m sure the Police Department could give you more particulars.
I was also referred to the Zoning department, because conducting a business out of my house might require a Special Permit.

It's a beautiful day today, and I was planning on walking downtown to get my hair cut, so I decided to stop by Town Hall and try to get to the bottom of all this in person. I met with Christine Brestrup (planning department) and Bonnie Weeks (I THINK that's who it was, down in the Zoning department), who were both very nice and patient as they asked me whether I had people come to my house (no), if this would generate extra traffic for the neighborhood (maybe a little, I might make a couple extra trips to the Post Office), and to describe what kind of stuff I was buying and selling on Ebay.

Now, that's kind of personal question. Is it really any of their business what I'm buying and selling? So I asked if there was some threshold in terms of amount of stuff that would make me a "business" subject to regulation.

Apparently there isn't. The consensus was that I need to apply for a Special Permit (cost: $150), explain what I'm up to in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and wait the three months it takes to get an answer from them to decide whether or not I'd disturb my neighbors.

Oh, and I'll need that $75 permit for dealing in used articles, no matter what the ZBA decides.

Sigh. I still don't have an answer to my question: "what does 'engage in the business of' mean?", but I've sent a followup question about that to the Zoning/Planning folks. If selling stuff you personally used/owned makes you a business, then wouldn't all these regulations apply to tag sales?

But imagine for a moment that I really DID have an Ebay business-- there are lots of people who buy stuff at tag sales and then resell it on Ebay. Even if we do repeal the silly bylaw about dealing in secondhand articles, doing that would still be illegal in Amherst, unless you go through a process that costs $150, and takes at least three months and several hours of your time.

Isn't that EXACTLY the type of no-impact, knowledge-based, green business that we want in Amherst?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Would a Meals Tax be a Free Lunch?

Should Amherst impose a local meals tax if the State decides to let towns impose meals taxes?

A meals tax is a particular kind of luxury tax, which seems like a good idea. Tax wealthy people on stuff that they buy, and use the money to pay for vital services used by everybody. Meals are particularly good, because I don't think people would drive to Hadley just to avoid paying an extra buck or two on their $100 dinner at La Baraque de Casse-Croƻte (or an extra nickel on their Happy Meal).

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, though, so that extra $1 that they're paying the Town is a dollar that they're not spending on something else. Maybe they'll eat out 99 times in a year instead of 100, costing local restaurants a little bit of business. Maybe they'll give a little less money to charity. Maybe the next time they want chocolate they'll buy Hershey instead of Godiva. Or maybe they'll decide to vote against property tax increases. Probably they'll do a little bit of all of those things.

I'd support a local meals tax if 100% of the money went to the local government, if only because it's more progressive than the property taxes and fees we pay now.

But the meals tax being proposed last year gave 75% of the money to the local government, with the other 25% going to the State. Is that a good deal for Amherst?

I don't know. It depends on how the tax changes spending patterns. If spending $1 more when eating out means that people spend $1 less on other stuff in Amherst, then it's a bad deal for Amherst-- we'll get 75 cents in tax revenue, but local businesses lose $1 in revenue. A quick google search turned up this factoid:
The results show that for every $100 in consumer spending at the local businesses, $73 stays in Chicago's economy (--Andersonville Study of Retail Economics)
Assuming that Amherst consumers spend like Chicago businesses (admittedly a bad assumption-- I wouldn't be surprised if we spend more money in Hadley than we do in Amherst), an extra dollar meals tax (as proposed last year) would mean 73 cents less for local businesses and 75 cents more for local government.

I'd vote no.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New York Times: Skeptical!

The New York Times magazine has an article today entitled "Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy? (read it here)"

I'm impressed. Lots of great information on why we should be skeptical of epidemiological studies (you know, the ones that result in headlines like "Trans Fats Linked To Higher Risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome"). I'll have to add to my list of statistics to beware of:

7. Be very skeptical of epidemiological studies that show a correlation between a certain behavior and a certain disease. Until there are an overwhelming number of them all showing a strong correlation, or until a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study is done, they should be treated as an interesting hypothesis that needs more research.

Friday, September 14, 2007

All the Cool Kids Have One

I spent $5 on this PayPal Security doo-hickey.

Now, whenever I want to login to my PayPal account, I enter my username and password and the six-digit number that the thingamajig generates when I poke it's button.

I wouldn't have bothered spending the $5 if it was only good for logging into PayPal-- the last thing I need is 7 different dongles hanging off my keychain for securely logging into different web sites. I did bother because the same device works for any web site that supports the OpenID standard. Not many do today, but I predict that over the next couple of years OpenID will become widely supported. If you're a geeky early adopter like me, check out for details.

If you're not a geeky early-adopter, but you use PayPal more than twice a month or keep more than $1,000 in your PayPal account (the cash in my PayPal account is earning 5.2% interest right now, which is darn hard to beat), you should pay the $5 for the extra security.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Skeptical Approach to Statistics

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
-- Benjamin Disraeli
Sometimes when I use statistical arguments the person I'm talking with will say something along the lines of "you can prove anything by choosing the right statistics." Yeah, but...

My rules of thumb for which statistics to believe are:

1. Never believe statistics you read in a newspaper or popular magazines or blogs. 87.5% of reporters have liberal arts backgrounds, and they're just not particularly good at math/science/statistics. Track down the original source, and see what the researchers actually say. If you can, run the paper through Google Scholar then find later papers that cite the study/paper, and see if all the citations support the same conclusions.

2. Never believe statistics that come from non-peer-reviewed sources. A statistic from the Quarterly Journal of Economics is 99.98% more trustworthy than a statistic from me.

3. Look closely at how close the statistic is to being "signficant." If the statistic is given without any measure of statistical significance, then it's almost certainly bogus.

4. Be very wary of statistics generated from "meta analyses" of a bunch of other studies. I'm told it's much harder (2.6 times harder) to get the math right for a meta-analysis.

5. Beware of statistics that give you differences in risk-- e.g. "doing XYZ decreases your risk of dying by 10%." These kinds of statistics sound impressive until you look at the absolute risk of doing XYZ-- very often, the risk is insanely tiny to begin with. Who cares if you decrease your risk of dying by a shark attack by 99% if you only swim in fresh water, if your chances of dying from a shark attack are essentially zero to begin with?

6. Beware of data mining effects. If you generate enough statistics about ANYTHING, some of them (1 in 20) will be outside the "95% confidence level." Pick and choose the ones that support your point of view and you can pretend that the randomness in the data is ironclad proof that you're right.

In an ideal world of infinite time and resources, I'd sit down with somebody I disagree with and together we'd decide on a statistic that we both agreed would be an unbiased way of measuring whatever we're arguing about (does the minimum wage cause unemployment, is more immigration good or bad for the economy, does capital punishment prevent crime...).

Then we'd go look up the relevant data and generate the statistic, and see who's right. With the astounding quantity of data and research available on the Internet we're getting closer to this ideal.
DISCLAIMER: All of the statistics in this blog post are 100% made up.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Government as Mommy or Daddy?

After getting elected to Amherst Town Meeting, I felt it was my duty to keep an open mind and try to see issues from all sides. So I'm trying to get a handle on exactly what it means to be "progressive," because I bet that's the label that most Town Meeting members would give themselves, if they were forced to choose a label.

Rob Kusner (bicycle riding Select Board guy, and arch-nemesis of bicycle riding Golf Course Crusader Larry Kelley) pointed me to George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute.

I've read "On Freedom" and "Thinking Points," but found it really hard not to tear their pages up into tiny little pieces as I read, for two reasons:

1. I was looking for utilitarian arguments for the progressive agenda, and instead I found advice on making the progressive agenda palatable to The Masses.

2. I don't fit into either of the two fundamental political "frames." I felt like a Buddhist listening in on an argument between Muslims and Christians; I believe in a Middle Way that makes all their arguments about whether or not Christ was the Son of God or just a prophet irrelevant to me.

According to Mr. Lakoff, progressives argue using the "Nurturant Parent" frame. Conservatives, the "Strict Father" frame. That's true, but there's a third frame-- the "Government is Not My Parent" frame of libertarians. There's a comment on the Thinking Points discussion page that sums it up nicely:
The problem with both the "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" models is that both assume We the People are mere children to be guided to and fro, by either a strict father or a "nurturant parent" (whatever that verbal gobbledygook means).

We're not. We the People ARE the government. You will not find the word "leader" anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. There's a reason for that. We don't elect our "leaders." We elect our "representatives." They are our deputies. They hold those positions by our consent, and are sworn to act on our behalf.

We the People are the source of civil legitimacy, and thus We the People are morally responsible for what our representatives, our deputies do.
-- crissieb
I'm proud to represent part of my neighborhood in Town Meeting. But I'll never forget that everybody who voted for me is a grown-up, capable of deciding for themselves what's best for them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Australian Humor

One of the benefits of having Australian relatives (Uncle, Aunt, and cousins) is that the kids regularly get Australian picture books.

The latest is "In the Bush: Our Holiday at Wombat Flat." It's kind of an Australian version of "Where's Waldo", only instead of geeky looking people in stripey hats, it's full of beer-drinking people doing all sorts of dangerous and politically incorrect things.

The Andresen household gives it four thumbs up, even though it has words we don't understand (what the heck is a "hoon"?), and even though we're probably missing half the jokes.