JCC Planning Commission Recommends Denying Permit for Vacation Rental

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The owners of this home on Lake Drive applied for a special use permit to rent rooms out to tourists. (JCC)
The owners of this home on Lake Drive applied for a special use permit to rent rooms out to tourists. (JCC)

In a 4-3 vote, the James City County Planning Commission recommended denying approval of a special use permit that would allow a home on Lake Drive to rent rooms through the limited residential lodging service Airbnb.

The application will move to the county’s Board of Supervisors for a final decision.

Commissioners heard comments from nine people both for and against the permit a public hearing Wednesday night. The application is the first submitted for a “rental of rooms” use in the county in more than a decade, said Planner Roberta Sulouff.

“Rental of rooms” allows permitted homeowners to rent out up to three rooms in their home while living at the residence themselves.

Planning staff had found the use to be compatible with surrounding development and zoning. They recommended approval subject to conditions that limited the number of occupants and vehicles allowed on site.

Opponents argued renting rooms would violate the neighborhood’s covenant, which they said restricts homes to residential use. They said they were concerned with how Airbnb guests would affect quality of life and the precedent the permit would set.

“Lakewood is designated low density residential, not commercial,” said Vinson Sutlive, a former chairman of the Lakewood Homeowners Association. “A business operating in the home is not by any stretch residential.”

Several Lakewood residents who spoke said they were not aware the homeowners, Bruce and Kathryn Williamson, had been renting out rooms via Airbnb until mid-April; the couple had rented rooms last year but said they stopped when they learned they were out of compliance.

Residents said they organized a petition against the permit and secured signatures from 60 percent of addresses in the neighborhood.

“You have the chance to keep this promise that Joe Terrell and this covenant made to me and others in Lakewood,” said resident Kathleen Exton, whose comments were received with applause from the audience.

Supporters of the permit commended the Williamsons for taking steps to abide by the law and argued such a practice would allow James City County to remain a top tourist destination.

“I think it’s an asset and it will actually make our community better. I would certainly be remiss to invite people into my home that would cause my property value or any of my neighbors’ property value to go down,” Kathryn Williamson said. “We just want the opportunity to entertain guests to our discretion. I respect and love my neighborhood and I respect and love my neighbors.”

Three commissioners, Chris Basic (Berkeley), Rich Krapf (Powhatan) and Heath Richardson (Stonehouse) supported the application, arguing the use fit the zoning and the fact no one knew the Williamsons were renting out rooms shows the business was unobtrusive.

However, the remaining commissioners said homeowners should expect predictability as to who is in their neighborhood and argued the Planning Commission should not interfere with a community’s covenant.

“I think part of our job is to help create community,” said Commission Chairman Tim O’Connor (At-Large). “Giving an approval creates discord that forces others to go out and find a means to remedy.”

Additionally, commissioners advocated for waiting on the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation regarding limited residential lodging before taking action.

The General Assembly considered legislation earlier this year that would have limited localities’ ability to regulate homeowners who rent out rooms to tourists. Legislators will take up the item next year, but first a work group will convene to review the item. It must issue any recommendations by Dec. 1.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation is tentatively set to go to the JCC Board of Supervisors on June 14.