City leaders look into tweaking ways to regulate Airbnbs

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Less than a year into regulating Airbnb properties and other “short-term rentals,” Harrisonburg might soon see changes to that system, including making it easier for those who operate “homestay” rentals out of their house. 

Since the spring, the city has required a special use permit for any Airbnb to operate within city limits. The Planning Commission held a work session on Tuesday afternoon to discuss possible amendments to the short-term rental ordinance. The commission could recommend changes, which the City Council would have to approve.

Thanh Dang, the city’s assistant director of Planning and Zoning, told The Citizen that the meeting had been “jointly initiated” by the commission and city staff.

“We recognized that we needed to have a discussion,” Dang said, about the general principles of short-term rentals, outside of vetting individual applications.
Since the first round of these applications hit the planning commissioners’ desks in May, they’ve sent a variety of recommendations to the council, often on a divided vote.

The council, however, has approved 24 of the 25 applications that made it to them. (Five applicants have dropped out after being reviewed by planning commission.) The one application council didn’t approve, on Sept. 10, returned to the commission for further review.

Vice Mayor Sal Romero has examined the issue from both angles: as part of the city council and as a member of the planning commission. As to the discrepancies between planning commission’s recommendations and council’s decisions, Romero told The Citizen that “it’s not that their recommendations are not acknowledged, or not valued,” but the council still “goes in a different direction” at times.

But Romero said that the process could definitely use some tweaking, and that Tuesday’s meeting was just the first step.

“It just makes sense to bring together the two bodies to really streamline what’s happening, and create a more straightforward pathway,” Romero said.

Possible amendments

The commission readily agreed that they preferred a two-tier system, in which small “homestays” could be allowed in one’s house without requiring city approval, and that larger “short-term rentals” would still have to go through the special use permit process. 

This two-tier system was part of their original recommendation to the city council last fall.

The commissioners found some common ground on Tuesday in how homestays could be differentiated from short-term rentals, such as limiting them to hosting four guests at a time, renting out the space only 90 nights per calendar year, and requiring them to register with the city annually.

Commission Chair Henry Way joked that the work session was a “refreshment, a happy hour with the ordinance.” He and commissioner Kathy Whitten have been the most likely to vote against short-term rental applications. 

“We’ve had a lot more people who have come forward and said, ‘I don’t want this to happen,’” about certain short-term rental properties, Whitten said. “I think we are causing some unrest.”

Commissioner Brent Finnegan responded, saying that they’ve had two applications in the same neighborhood, but only one of them drew neighbor criticism – which could become a game of favorites, especially since special use permits stay with a property when it changes hands.

But Planning Commission Vice-chair Gil Colman said such favoritism could lend itself to discrimination.

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