Airbnb properties are one step closer to being regulated, and Council finally ends HEC commissioner saga

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor 

Short term rentals in Harrisonburg, including Airbnb properties and vacation rentals, will soon be regulated by special use permits – if a new proposed city ordinance passes its second reading at the next city council meeting.

With Mayor Deanna Reed absent while attending a conference, the council voted 3-1 on Tuesday evening to approve the first reading of the measure to regulate those short-term rentals — formerly defined in city code as “bed and breakfasts.”

Owners of those properties in Harrisonburg would have to apply for a special use permit — a three month process that costs a one-time fee of $475 (plus $30 per acre of the property), and an annual $50 registration fee. The rentals will also be subject to a 7% city lodging tax and 7% city meals tax on any prepared food or beverages.

The council selected that option after Adam Fletcher, the city’s director of planning and community development, presented two different approaches, including one that had been endorsed by the city’s planning commision.  

Vice Mayor Sal Romero, who presided over the meeting, was the lone dissenting vote on the selection of the special use option because he said he supported “option two,” which included the additional classification of “homestays.” Among other distinctions, homestays would not require the special use permit or its one-time fee, although those properties still would be subject to registration and taxes.

Romero sits on the planning commission as the council’s representative, which had voted 4-3 in favor of option two, with recommendations to make the homestay regulations more permissive. The city’s staff, however, had recommended option one — the special use permits.

“Staff believe there is a threat to housing costs,” Fletcher said. If landlords find it more lucrative to provide short-term rather than long-term rentals, city staff said that could cause long-term rents to rise – a worry shared by larger cities around the world.

Fletcher explained that stable, long-term residents provide “community-building, which is something that staff wants to preserve for neighborhoods.”

Tuesday’s move comes after council tabled the matter last year so that staff could research other localities’ regulations..

Council member Chris Jones said he would support either option, as long as it could be properly enforced, for instance, by city staff regularly reviewing Airbnb properties listed in Harrisonburg and by making sure they are permitted and registered.

City Manager Eric Campbell and his staff will spend the next two weeks drafting a plan about how to implement the new regulations before the council takes its second vote. The plan could include enforcement guidelines and establish a grace period to notify Airbnb property owners so they can be in compliance.

Councilmember Richard Baugh said whatever is finally approved might have to be adjusted later.

“It will be easier to move in the direction toward [option] two from one, rather than the other way,” Baugh said. “Pretty much anything we do, you can pick holes in it … it’s not like truth, beauty and the American way tell us to ‘do it this way.’”

Council fills last HEC spot

The council appointed Chris Weaver of Lantz Construction Co. to the Harrisonburg Electric Commission by a vote of 3-1.

Weaver’s appointment ended an unusually public saga for a city appointment that dated back to early December 2018 when David Frackelton’s spot first came up for reappointment.

Council member George Hirschmann voted against Weaver’s appointment. Hirschmann had moved to reappoint Frackelton, the incumbent commissioner, who had drawn the ire of local environmental activists. Before the December council meeting, they voiced opposition to Frackelton, citing social media posts in which Frackelton seemed to question humans’ role in climate change.

Frackelton, who runs an energy consulting firm, later told The Citizen he considers climate change to be happening but didn’t believe humans could play a large role in causing it — or slowing or reversing it. 

“I think he’s getting a bit of a bad deal,” Hirschmann said Tuesday of Frackelton. Hirschmann’s motion, however, wasn’t seconded, and Jones then moved to appoint Weaver.

Council preps for grant distributions

Kristin McCombe, the city’s grants and compliance officer, presented recommendations for which organizations should receive Community Development Block Grant funding, which comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The grants are intended “to benefit low and moderate income persons” in the community, McCombe said. She expects Harrisonburg will receive a similar amount of federal funding to last year’s allocation of $560,000, although the money has not arrived yet.

City staff’s largest CDBG funding recommendations were:

  • $140,000 to the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority to renovate the Harrison Heights public housing building.
  • $137,500 to Public Works for sidewalk construction on South Dogwood Drive.
  • $83,000 for administration costs.
  • $55,000 to Public Utilities for a water line replacement on Kelley Street.
  • $39,193.39 to Parks and Recreation to improve park accessibility.
  • $29,000 to the Northeast Neighborhood Association to renovate the historic Dallard-Newman House, money that otherwise would have gone into the administration costs pot.

McCombe said  applications are evaluated based on a rubric, which all the applicants receive with their application packet. The highest scorers in each of four categories receive the full amount of their funding request, with the next highest scorer receiving the remainder allocated to that category.

“We received a lot of excellent applications this year,” McCombe said. “It’s simply how they score on the applications.”

The Boys and Girls Club, Open Doors thermal homeless shelter and Phase II of the Northend Greenway were among the applicants that wouldn’t receive funding. Open Doors will receive an automatic external defibrillator as part of another CDBG-funded program.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting:

  • City council voted to adopt the Capital Improvement Plan, a guiding document which plans capital expenses over $50,000 for the next five years. It includes the construction of the new high school; street, sidewalk, and parking renovation; park improvements; and the construction of a new emergency communications center (shared with Rockingham County).
  • The council approved two special event applications from Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance: the Strawberry Festival on Saturday, May 18, and the Bike Virginia 2019 Tour from Sunday, June 23, to Wednesday, June 26, at Hillandale Park.
  • Joe Bowman was re-appointed to the Shenandoah Valley Airport Commission.
  • Thomas Jenkins was re-appointed to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
  • Romero invited applications to the Towing Advisory Board and announced that Reed would also be absent from the council’s next meeting, which is March 26, because she will be taking 30 high school students on college tours.

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