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When Colonial Bed & Breakfast Owner Karen Watkins’ mother passed away a couple weeks ago, she was faced with a tough decision.
“Do I call all of my guests and tell them they can no longer come, or do I miss my mother’s funeral?” she asked.
The dilemma stemmed from a law in the City of Williamsburg that says only the owners of B&Bs can run the businesses. Watkins husband could not cover for her, as he has his own job at the Department of Defense.
Watkins decided to shut down her business and go to the funeral, a situation she called frustrating.
At least three of the owners of the city’s 27 B&Bs share Watkins’ frustrations with the City of Williamsburg’s current regulations regarding their businesses. Their frustrations vary: one wants to be able to hold dinners and weddings, others want to be able to move out of town and keep their businesses and all three interviewed owners and others who showed up to previous planning commission meetings wish regulations allowed them to hire an innkeeper to take over when they decide to retire.
Those grievances are the center of a recently proposed city law and a likely topic of conversation at an upcoming meeting between city planners and B&B owners. City council will hold a public hearing on one of those grievances — allowing the hiring of an innkeeper — 2 p.m. Thursday in the Stryker Building at 412 N. Boundary St.
Current regulations do not allow the owners to hire innkeepers to manage their businesses, nor are owners permitted to live in another home. Not following the regulations could lead to a $200 fine for the first offense and $500 for any additional offenses. Owners could be charged the money every 10 days they do not comply with the law. If anyone is injured due to non-compliance, the owner is subject to a misdemeanor charge.
A proposed law change, which was recently recommended to City Council by the Planning Commission, would allow owners to hire innkeepers and to live elsewhere — as long as they reside within city limits. A public hearing on the law is scheduled for Thursday’s City Council meeting.
Watkins, Joe Bradley, and Debbie and John Keane — all bed and breakfast owners in the city — said they welcomed any loosening regulations, but the proposed law change was not enough. All four said they would like the option of being able to move outside of city limits, if they so desired.
Debbie Keane, who runs A White House off Jamestown Road with her husband, John, said she would remain at her home until she was “drug out the front door feet first.” She said she loved her house and did not plan on leaving anytime soon because she wants her three kids to be able to come back to visit their childhood memories.
As Keane and her husband both approach retirement age, they worry what would become of A White House if they were forced to go into an assisted living center outside of city limits.
“What would happen then?” Keane asked. “We’d be forced to sell our home and everything we’ve worked for.”
Because Keane does not plan on leaving her business, she would like the option of hiring an innkeeper to work and live there. The law change, as it is now proposed, would allow Keane to hire an innkeeper but that person would not be allowed to live in the home if she and her husband stay. Instead, the innkeeper would need to drive to work every day.
It’s a caveat to the law Keane said revealed a misunderstanding lawmakers have of the B&B industry, as owners have to wake up and make breakfast every morning at 6 a.m. and tend to late-night requests from guests. It just would not work, she said.
“You’re working around the clock,” she said. “That’s just how this job works.”
City Planning Director Reed Nester said the reason the law specifies a hired innkeeper could not live with the owner is because the houses are zoned for single-family use and a hired innkeeper would represent an additional family in the home.
Keane and her husband have been instrumental in working to get B&B regulations loosened, showing up to city meetings to advocate for owners.
In 2006, city lawmakers told owners they can have six rooms if they apply for a special use permit and have at least 1 acre of land – a property size that applied to two of the city’s 27 B&Bs, A White House and Colonial Gardens. Nester said he did not think that number had grown any larger since that time.
Financial viability is the end goal for the Keanes, Watkins and Bradley, who owns Inn at 802. While Watkins said she is making good money at her business, both the Keanes and Bradley said making enough money to keep the business and family going is the nature of owning a B&B.
To make the businesses more profitable, Debbie Keane asked the planning commission to consider allowing B&B’s to host small events like business gatherings and small weddings. She argued there is a demand for it.
“I get a call about once a week from somebody asking if we can host a wedding,” Keane said. “And I have to turn them down.”
While there are no current regulations for weddings or small gatherings at B&Bs, Nester said the way the ordinance is written means the absence of regulations on those things means they are not allowed. A wedding could take place, Nester said, if the wedding party and guests were a group sized to legally fit in B&B rooms.
Each room is allowed two guests, so a B&B with four rooms could hold a wedding of eight people. The problem comes with allowing larger groups, Nester said, as creating enough parking to accommodate the groups could jeopardize the residential aesthetic of the neighborhood.
The planning commission agreed to sit down with owners at 4 p.m. Feb. 26 in third floor conference room at the city’s Municipal Building to discuss allowing Bed and Breakfast owners to host small events.