Family in limbo while county defers on Airbnb

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The Dillon family home, located at 7206 Merrimac Trail, has become the linchpin in a dispute between James City County and users of the residential lodging site Airbnb. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)
The Dillon family home, located at 7206 Merrimac Trail, has become the linchpin in a dispute between James City County and users of the residential lodging site Airbnb. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)

If Shelby Dillon could blast a hole through the middle of her house, she would.

The white farmhouse, located in a bamboo grove next to the Merrimac Trail corridor, has become the linchpin in a dispute between James City County and users of the residential lodging site Airbnb.

In April, after being denied a business license due to zoning regulations, Dillon filed an application with the county for a special-use permit to use Airbnb to rent out half of the home she shares her with husband Patrick.

“Little did I know what a hornet’s nest I was getting into at the time,” Dillon said.

The application had the potential to create precedent in a county that has yet to develop a policy for Airbnb. In June, the James City County Planning Commission, by a vote of 4-3, recommended that the County Board of Supervisors approve Dillon’s special-use permit with an added sunset clause, requiring the Dillon family to apply for a new permit within a two-year period.

The two-year window, the commissioners stated, would allow the planning commission and the state legislature to determine the best way to respond to the area’s growing limited residential lodging industry.

Shelby Dillon presented her case for a special use permit before the James City County Board of Supervisors on July 12. (JCC TV)
Shelby Dillon presented her case for a special use permit before the James City County Board of Supervisors on July 12. (JCC)

With the commission’s approval, Dillon’s application went before the James City County Board of Supervisors Tuesday night for a final decision. In a unanimous vote, the Board decided to defer Dillon’s case until March 14, 2017, after the state legislature develops its own policy for Airbnb.

“I’d hate to put us in a position where we are creating a potential conflict between our own policies,” said Vice Chairman John McGlennon. “The [state] legislation is extremely important.”

Currently, there are 295 properties with rooms available for rent listed on Airbnb.com in the Greater Williamsburg area. Some are for licensed bed and breakfasts, while the majority are private homeowners, who now — with the Board’s deferment — are left in legal limbo.

“We were gonna determine whether we were going to stay in the area and that’s all up in the air now,” Dillon said following Tuesday’s vote. “I didn’t mean to get in the middle of this whole precedent setting thing.”

Split in Two

One four-foot section of shared wall is all that joins Dillon’s house to unit she plans to rent. Without that wall, Dillon’s house, now considered a single family home, would be considered a duplex or subdivision, which is subject to a different zoning designation.

“If I could cut the house in half and just keep my half, I would,” she said, only half joking.

According to Dillon, the designation of “single family home” over “duplex,” would allow her to have separate utilities for each unit, a major factor in her decision not to take on long-term renters and opt for Airbnb instead. With a duplex designation, the Board could have also been more willing to rule in Dillon’s favor.

Interior of the two-bedroom unit Shelby Dillon planned to rent out on Airbnb. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)
Interior of the unit Shelby Dillon planned to rent out on Airbnb. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)

James City County provides for two different types of special-use permits for short-term home rentals, one is for “rental of rooms,” which requires the homeowner to live on the property and rent out a maximum of three rooms inside the home.

The second type of special-use permit is for a “tourist home,” which does not require the homeowner to live on the property. In April, for the first time in over a decade, the Board unanimously approved a “tourist home” special-use permit for a house on Brick Bat Road.

Regardless of whether she is the owner of one home or two, Dillon is now faced with the decision to wait on the Board or move closer to her husband’s job in Richmond.

“If we had known that it probably would have been postponed back in April, when we put in the application, we might not have done it,” Dillon said. “Now I don’t know which way it’s gonna go. I really don’t, and to begin to contemplate trying to sell the house…I don’t know. I don’t know which way we’re going.”