Council moves toward rewriting AirBnB regulations … again

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

City residents living in single-family homes, duplexes and townhomes will soon have the right to host up to four guests in their home through platforms such as AirBnB, as the council on Tuesday approved a first reading of revisions to the city’s short-term rentals policies.

In fact, zoning issues took the forefront at the meeting, with additional rezoning approvals, a couple special permit applications and engaged in an initial discussion of a comprehensive update to Harrisonburg’s zoning ordinances.

The issue of how best to regulate short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, has been a thorny one over the last two years, prompting the council to keep revisiting it. Under this latest approach, residents seeking to allow up to four short-term paying guests would have to register with the city and pay an annual fee of $25 and can’t rent out their space for more than 90 nights per year. But they wouldn’t have to go through the planning commission and city council in order to get permission. 

Previously, the council defined all such accommodations as “short-term rentals,” which require a special use permit reviewed by the planning commission and then approved or denied by city council. Now, the additional category of “homestays” will be allowed in all residential zoning districts — except for apartment buildings classified as “multi-family units” — without having to go through the special use permit process.

The council had considered this two-pronged approach in 2018, when it first drafted these regulations but did not allow the homestay option until this week. 

The changes were carried on a 3-0 vote, with Mayor Deanna Reed absent and council member Chris Jones abstaining. Jones said he was concerned with the lack of enforcement of the city’s current policy, as city staff only occasionally check websites like AirBnb to catch operators offering up their properties without registering with the city.

“I thought we would have a consistent scrubbing of those sites,” Jones said.

Council member Richard Baugh said the council regularly approved short-term rental applications that meet the parameters of a homestay, “so why make these people go through the process?” 

A complete overhaul of the zoning code is in the works as well. In Tuesday’s meeting, the council heard a presentation from the consulting firm the city hired to lead the “zoning and subdivision ordinances update project.”

Brian Mabry, a code practice leader from Kendig Keast Collaborative based in Sugarland, Texas, explained that this 12-to-15 month revamping process would help create a more “user-friendly” online code. He said it also can prioritize city values, such as mixing different housing types within neighborhoods, providing opportunities for infill and redevelopment and city “walkability.” 

“All of these come together to help create community character and community design,” Mabry said.

The process includes a number of ways for locals to weigh in, including a public open house meeting and stakeholder groups. Thanh Dang, the planning and zoning assistant director, asked the council to provide recommendations for different stakeholder groups that could form around affinities such as developers, downtown residents, social service providers, environmental advocates or neighborhood associations. 

The consultants will also meet multiple times with an ordinance advisory committee, made up of 10 to 12 community members appointed by the council. 

Council gives thumbs-up to solar farm land

The council unanimously approved a request from the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, which is a municipally-owned utility, to purchase about 10 acres to install a solar farm on the north end of town. 

Earlier Tuesday, HEC General Manager Brian O’Dell told the commission’s board at its monthly meeting that the HEC is still exploring how to set up the solar farm program and is “gauging interest from our customers.” He said a conservative estimate for how soon it could be completed would be the second half of 2021. 

“So we have some time ahead of us to build that program and communicate with our customers,” O’Dell said. 

City Attorney Chris Brown said the property on Acorn Drive, which is being sold for $550,000, will legally belong to the city, although the commission will be responsible for its expenses and operation. 

“It will give us the opportunity to produce a substantial amount of solar,” said council member Richard Baugh.

Also in the meeting:

  • The council agreed to offer recommendations to City Manager Eric Campbell for names of people to sit on an advisory committee about how to spend the next round of federal CARES Act funds. Campbell said the city expects to receive another $4.6 million.
  • The council unanimously approved a request to rezone a two-acre property that fronts Clinton and Charles Streets from an industrial to a business zone. A potential buyer plans to renovate the property as an event center for weddings, showers, quinceñeras and other community events. 
  • The council unanimously approved a subdivision and special use permit request from Stoneburner, Inc., a lumberyard and building material supplier on South High Street. Stoneburner intends to construct an office building on the property that they could rent to a medical urgent care facility.

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