Airbnb owners operating without a permit don’t get council’s approval — for now; Another noise ordinance change passes 2nd reading

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor

For the first time since requiring special use permits for short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, the Harrisonburg City Council decided at Tuesday’s meeting to kick an application back to the Planning Commission for a second review.

The commission in August had unanimously denied the application, submitted by Wesley Smallwood and Dionne Jones of Orange Sky Investments LLC. Since that Aug. 14 meeting, Smallwood and Jones altered their application to list Smallwood as the primary resident at the formerly unoccupied home on New York Avenue and to limit the number of guests to 12 rather than 14. 

After those changes, city planning staff formally recommended the council approve the application. Then the staff learned that Smallwood and Jones had continued to operate their AirBnB without a permit after the Aug. 1 cutoff date, and were fined $100, according to Adam Fletcher, Director of Planning and Community Development.

During the public hearing on the application, Dionne Jones said that AirBnB would have charged them $500 to cancel a reservation “that was made last year. Most of our reservations are made six months in advance.”

Council member Chris Jones said the AirBnB fine “would be worth it to stay out of violation” of city ordinance.

The other applicant, Wesley Smallwood, said, “we understood that as: if you continue to operate, you’ll be fined,” rather than an order to “cease and desist.”

Council member Richard Baugh said “it isn’t just math” because the business has to operate within regulations.

Several neighborhood residents spoke during the public hearing on both sides of the issue.

One neighbor said before Smallwood bought the property, “it wasn’t kept up very well,” and the previous tenants had been inconsiderate.

“After Mr. Smallwood took that property over, those issues were corrected,” he said.

Another local resident advocated for the applicants, saying they have to keep the property well maintained “to get positive reviews.”

Two others spoke against the applicants, citing the size of the rental being akin to a seven-bedroom “hotel” and, as one neighbor put it, the “flagrant disregard” of the special use permit process.

“I do have an issue with the violation,” Mayor Deanna Reed said. “I would like to see it go back to [the] Planning Commission.”

Council member Baugh made the motion to return the application to the commission. Baugh told The Citizen after the meeting that his primary concern was that the appropriate process be followed considering the application had changed significantly since the commission had voted on it.

Baugh said when he first served on the commission 15 years ago, it was common for permit applications to change between planning commission and city council meetings.

“I think we’ve done a good job of getting away from that,” Baugh said. “We have a body whose job it is to review these things.”

Noise ordinance amendment

The council did unanimously pass a second reading of another amendment to the city’s noise ordinance — the second in a month. This is one is aimed at limiting “non-road-related construction noise” from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The existing ordinance limited all noise to 65 decibels during the day and 55 decibels at night, but construction activities were previously exempt from those limits. Now property construction must follow the nighttime restrictions.

The federal agency for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compares 60 decibels to hearing an average conversation from three feet away.

Other noises which are still exempt from the regulations — day and night — include band and athletic events on school grounds, sanctioned athletic events in city parks, road construction and maintenance and trash collection.

One local resident, Zack Germroth, spoke at a city council meeting earlier this summer in favor of even stricter regulations, such as starting the nighttime decibel limit at 7 or 8 p.m.

“Look at the operators of these pieces of equipment … they all wear hearing protection,” Germroth told The Citizen, citing the health risks of exposure to loud noise.

Meeting about Virginia’s “racial terror”

Amy Snider, assistant to the city manager, announced during the meeting that the state government’s History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group would host a meeting at JMU’s Memorial Hall on Monday, Sept. 16, to discuss Virginia’s history of “racial terror.” 

The meeting is an outgrowth of the collaboration of the Charlotte Harris Community Remembrance Project, of which Snider and Vice-Mayor Sal Romero are both participants.

“We are the first city to host this working group meeting in the state of Virginia,” Snider said.

Also at the meeting:

  • Council members Chris Jones and Richard Baugh recognized the life’s work of Larry Hoover, who helped found the Fairfield Center and Gemeinschaft Home — two achievements in a long list of community involvement. Hoover died on Friday.
  • The council unanimously adopted a resolution establishing Sept. 13-22 as Welcoming Week, part of a national movement to celebrate the civil contributions of foreign-born residents and promote community.
  • Jones announced that the new superintendent of the Middle River Regional Jail will make a presentation at the Community Criminal Justice Board’s next meeting on Dec. 2 at 4 p.m. in classrooms 11 and 12 of City Hall.
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