Shelby Dillon and her husband started renting rooms in their house on Merrimac Trail last year, taking in a little extra income via the popular website Airbnb.
"We didn't want to be landlords, which is why we didn't rent it out on a long-term basis," Dillon said. "It was not our intention to get in the middle of a hornet's nest with Airbnb."
But after finding out they needed a special use permit and a business license to operate the rentals, the couple soon found themselves in a complex process to get authorization from the county.
The Planning Commission this week recommended granting a special use permit for the couple after a debate over the scope of the committee's authority, and whether or not a "fair and equitable" process could be put in place for renters countywide, making sure that local transient occupant taxes were paid.
Any final approval will have to come from the Board of Supervisors.
The General Assembly is considering legislation that would expand homeowners' ability to use the short- term rentals, thereby limiting restrictions imposed by localities and homeowners' associations.
A study will be conducted this summer by a special state committee to discuss the impact of internet-based short-term home rentals, that will get input from the competing hotel industries, localities and Airbnb.
Fair and equitable
The Dillons's application for a special use permit was the second case in as many months the commission has faced on an issue experts agreed will become more prevalent as the internet makes it easier for new economies to emerge.
The special use permit recommendation was passed on a 4-3 vote with a "sunset" clause after two years, meaning it will have to be re-evaluated.
Commissioner Robin Bledsoe said she wants the rentals to take place, but wanted to make sure they are happening "in a way that's fair safe and equitable to everyone that's involved," she said.
"We need to look at economic development, we need to ensure that hotels and established bed and breakfasts are protected," said Commissioner Heath Richardson. "We certainly have a lot more to consider than some other areas."
But Commissioner Rich Krapf disagreed.
"I'm concerned some of my colleagues would vote no because they want to protect hotels or bed and breakfasts," said Krapf. "Free enterprise is built on allowing entrepreneurs to come forward with new and innovative ideas. I feel we're supposed to look at every entity as its own location."
"I'm not here to lobby for the hotel industry or the bed and breakfast industry, I don't want anybody to think that I was ... I don't think we should set up a process without thinking it through if there's a detriment to those who have always played by the rules," Bledsoe said.
She said there were at least 200 listings on Airbnb in James City County.
Last month, in another 4-3 vote, the Planning Commission denied a permit recommendation to Bruce and Kathy Williamson, who are seeking authorization to have Airbnb rentals at their home in the Lakewood subdivision.
Unlike this week's meeting, nearly a dozen people lined up last month to speak about the Williamson's permit application. The swing vote in the two cases was commission Chairman Tim O'Connor, who voted against the Williamsons's application but voted in favor of the Dillons's.
O'Connor said location and community input factored into his decision.
"I think for me the differences were just the accessibility," O'Connor said, referring to the Dillon property. "It was on a main road, and not really inside the neighborhood."
"I think the bigger issue ... we have to decide is these are all specially permitted uses, I think the question is, should they be?" Commissioners agreed it would be laborious for each prospective renter to apply for the special use permit, which is evaluated by planning staff, forwarded to the Planning Commission, and then ultimately decided by the Board of Supervisors.
The General Assembly will study the Airbnb rentals this summer and a special committee of legislators is holding hearings on the issue as well.
Karen Riordan, President and CEO of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, also said the local lodging industry wanted to make sure there was fairness in the process.
"We have 15,235 rooms in our destination of James City County, York County and the City of Williamsburg combined. We don't know how many visitors may be staying with family/friends or using sharing platforms like Airbnb," she said."We support the General Assembly's decision to research the matter further to ensure local zoning laws are not violated and that there is a level playing field between Airbnb and our existing lodging industry."
A spokesman for Airbnb could not be reached for comment by the Gazette's deadline.
Julia Hammond, a contract lobbyist for the Virginia Restaurant Lodging Travel Association, said all sides have agreed there's a need for state laws to catch up with new technology.
"We're looking to get a consensus piece of legislation, it does sound like all parties recognize that we need something, and nobody is trying to stand in the way of legislation at all," Hammond said.
She said the hotel and lodging industry faced additional regulations that Airbnb has thus far avoided and that fairness needed to be ensured.
"Regular B&B's online can look like a listing on Airbnb, but because they've gone the traditional route the requirements heaped upon them are drastically different than what an Airbnb property would."
Bob Matthias, deputy city manager for Virginia Beach, said the online rental service has grown in popularity. "At any given moment there are 300 or 400 listings," Matthias said. When combined with similar websites, he said more than 2,000 homes are listed in the area. But unlike James City County, the listers are not required to seek a conditional use permit. Matthias said the short-term rentals on the site typically violate zoning ordinances, but it would be difficult to enforce it without an active task-force to vet them.
"Normally, short-term renters go through a rental agency that collects the tax," Matthias said. "We think everyone should play by the same rules, meet the same room requirements, and pay the taxes that are due," he said.
Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-345-2346.
James City County provides for two different types of special use permits for short-term home rentals, according to Assistant County Administrator Jason Purse. One is for rental of rooms, which requires homeowners to live on the property; the second is for a tourist home, where the homeowner doesn't have to live on the property.