Council seeks to address housing crunch by creating new zone for smaller lots, approves first 3 Airbnb properties

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

The city council took steps to address Harrisonburg’s housing and real estate environment Tuesday night with the approval of a new zoning district for single family houses to go on smaller lots and gave the green light to the first three special permits to operate Airbnbs in the city.

Those discussions included eight public hearings as part of the four-hour meeting as council members delved into the details of ways to encourage — or preserve — affordable housing and protect neighborhoods’ character.

For instance, the council voted unanimously to add the new zoning district R8 “small lot residential” to the city’s zoning ordinances. Among other distinctions, R8 allows considerably smaller lot sizes for single-family detached homes and duplexes.

“The intent here is to create home ownership,” said Adam Fletcher, the city’s director of planning and community development. While the city is not going to proactively rezone properties to R8, Fletcher said property owners can apply to rezone and subdivide their properties, then build small homes on the “new” lots.

“We have a demand for housing in the city, especially this kind of housing,” local engineer Dick Blackwell, who has worked on the R8 initiative for two years, said during the public hearing. 

Blackwell said the small homes will be particularly attractive to first-time homebuyers.

“This creates more inventory,” council member Chris Jones said. He said these homes would particularly benefit workers and working families who are struggling — known as the “Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” or ALICE population, as well as higher-end buyers who are looking to downsize.

“We are working towards helping those that need housing,” said Mayor Deanna Reed. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

While one resident said she was concerned about parking becoming more scarce, she liked the concept behind the proposal.

No one else offered any concerns. But Blackwell said some property owners in low-density residential districts might be upset by R8 rezonings in their neighborhoods in the future.

“We can handle it,” Reed said.

Greenbriar Drive rezoning denied

Five residents of one neighborhood did show up Tuesday to emphatically oppose another proposal concerning a rezoning request for three adjacent properties on Greenbriar Drive, near the I-81 exit on Port Republic Road.

The council voted unanimously to deny the request to rezone the properties from R-1 single-family residential to R-3C, which would allow for more tenants to share a house. The three properties, which are rented out, are situated between a neighborhood of mostly families and a townhome complex that is largely rented to college students.

One resident who spoke during public comment played a recording on his phone of a loud student party, heard at 11 p.m. one night from his porch. Four other residents spoke, calling on council to “preserve the character” of their neighborhood against the noise and inebriation from student parties.

Former Harrisonburg mayor Carolyn Frank, one of the property owners applying for the rezoning, said that she’s never received a complaint about one of her tenants.

Even voting it down “is not going to change some of the problems that people are talking about,” Frank said.

First three Airbnbs are now legal

The council also heard the first three special use permits for short-term rentals since establishing the application process in March.

After unanimous votes in favor of each, the first three legally-operated Airbnbs in the city of Harrisonburg are now located on Hillcrest Drive, South Willow Street and Summit Avenue.

This is the result of the council’s efforts to better regulate Airbnb properties and short-term rentals not only to capture tax revenue but also to have some say over how many properties become used as Airbnbs for investors at a time when the housing market in Harrisonburg is crunched.

All three permits were approved with conditions, including that the properties be the primary residence of the owner-operator, the owner-operator be present while renting out the space, and the owner-operator file a form guaranteeing that the “accommodation spaces” meet certain safety requirements, such as a door or window for immediate emergency exit to the outside.

Staff had recommended denying the Summit Avenue request because the property is tucked away in a cul-de-sac away from larger “collector” streets that handle greater traffic. The planning commission had voted five to two in favor of the request last month.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be in the business of the, ‘not in my neighborhood, not in my backyard’ mentality” on the council, Jones said. He said that thresholds of how “deep” a property is in the neighborhood “starts to become so arbitrary.”

Council member Richard Baugh added that no residents spoke out against the request.

A ‘new normal’ in council meetings? 

Prompted by another marathon meeting, the council agreed to try holding workshops at 5:30 p.m. on regular meeting days for presentations and briefings that do not require council action.

City Manager Eric Campbell said those meetings will be held on an as-needed basis, and announced publicly.

The deluge of planning-related agenda items prompted Campbell to respond to council members’ concerns about meeting length. And with more special use permits for Airbnbs awaiting planning commission approval — and, thus, likely to be on the council’s docket soon — council members and Campbell spent more than 20 minutes at the end of Tuesday’s meeting debating whether the three-plus hour meetings were a “new normal,” as Baugh put it. 

Baugh wondered whether the influx would be “the wave crashing up against the beach” or a more steady stream.

“We’ll know as we move into the fall,” Campbell said.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council unanimously adopted a resolution expressing condolences to the victims of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach on May 31.
  • The council voted unanimously to issue a general obligation bond of up to $8 million to finance half of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board expansion and renovation. The county will be financing the other half.
  • Council members voted unanimously to raise the city’s water and sewer rates to fund the Shenandoah Raw Waterline project, the installation of a water line to provide the city water from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. Public utilities director Mike Collins estimated that the water rate increase would cost the average family less than two dollars per month.
  • The council also voted unanimously to raise emergency medical service transportation rates, such as rescue squad ambulance rides, to largely match the county’s prices.

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