Williamsburg City council considers policy on short-term rentals

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More short-term rentals are coming to the city of Williamsburg, and City Council took the first step toward deciding where and how it would allow them in a work session Monday.

Internet-based rental companies such as Airbnb and FlipKey have become popular nationwide by allowing visitors to rent a house or room in a house when they visit a new area.

Williamsburg allows short-term rentals at hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and timeshares.

James City County and York County both use some combination of use-by-right or special permits to keep track of the properties they allow to have short-term rentals.

Resident Barbara Ramsey said the city must adapt to make the shared economy benefit the city.

“Airbnb is here to stay,” she said. “I don’t think we can put our heads in the sand.”

The state of Virginia has determined its localities should decide how to handle short-term rentals.

Some cities require a special permit for any region of the city where short-term rentals are allowed. Others only allow them in some areas, or limit the number of rooms an owner may make available for rent.

It’s important to find a policy on short-term rentals, Mayor Paul Freiling said.

“We can’t do nothing,” he said. “That’s going to tell the General Assembly that we didn’t really mean what we said when we wanted local control.”

City staff have recommended that if the city allows short-term rentals through companies such as Airbnb, it should consider doing so in only a portion of the city in west Williamsburg — including parts of Henry and Scotland streets — where there is already a significant portion of renters.

“Staff has concerns with permitting the rental of dwellings to transient visitors in and around the downtown area and around the College of William and Mary,” reads a city memo to council members. “As articulated in the letter signed by Mayor Haulman in 2016 to the city legislative delegation, the pressure on these neighborhoods to become investment communities is already heightened by their proximity to the college.”

Doug Pons said he’d heard from residents concerned with the idea of different people cycling in and out of houses from week to week.

“The fragility coming with rentals is in the instability of the people there,” he said. “It doesn’t have that same neighborhood feel.”

Even the idea of short-term rentals has rubbed people the wrong way in past years, Vice Mayor Scott Foster said.

“Williamsburg equates rental with negative, and I’ve always had a problem with that," he said.

Other localities in the state have addressed the issue of short-term rentals, and Foster said finding information on what might work for the city is paramount.

“We need to go out and find some facts about what effects this has had on other localites,” he said, adding that he preferred to have a big-picture community discussion down the line.

In the current draft ordinance, which city attorney Christina Shelton crafted by looking at other Virginia cities’ policies, would allow short-term rentals only in single-family houses that are occupied by the owner.

The ordinance also says no rental property can also as a serve short-term rental, and no more than two bedrooms in a given property would be available for rent.

Shelton said the draft ordinance is only a suggestion, and city staff will take the information from council and return at a future meeting.

By then, they’ll have changed the draft ordinance to reflect council feedback.

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

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