Airbnb in JCC: Short-term residential rentals approved by Supes

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The site of the Dillon's property, which is now available for rent via Airbnb.com. (Courtesy Commonwealth of Virginia)
The site of the Dillon’s property, which is now available for rent via Airbnb.com. (Courtesy Commonwealth of Virginia)

The Historic Triangle has long been a tourist destination, and travelers to James City County now have one more housing option when planning a trip: Airbnb.

The county’s Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to grant Patrick and Shelby Dillon a special use permit to rent their Merrimac Trail home through the marketing and hospitality website Airbnb.com.

The decision marks the first time a residential property in the county has received a special-use permit for rentals. The approval opens the door to all residential property owners interested in applying for a permit for a short-term rental of 30-days or less, on a case by case basis, county officials said.

“If you go on Airbnb, there are other ones going on in our area,” said Supervisor Ruth Larson.  “I appreciate the applicants’ due diligence to play by the rules.”

There are currently more than 300 properties in the greater Williamsburg area listed on Airbnb.com.  The site claims to have over 3,000,000 worldwide listings online.

The Dillons’ proposal first appeared before the board in July 2016, but the board voted to defer the matter to March, per the applicants’ request.  Virginia’s General Assembly at the time was considering legislation that would allow local governments to authorize residents to offer their property for short-term rental.

The board’s deferral allowed time for the assembly to study the short-term rental impact at local levels, according to meeting documents.  The assembly passed the legislation during its 2017 session, and is currently awaiting the signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe to pass it into state law.

Board Chairman Kevin Onizuk said that if the county would have likely developed a policy by now had Richmond passed the legislation.

Several board members stated that they supported the application in part because of the sunset clause.  Future applicants will have to go through the same process as the Dillon’s to rent out their property through Airbnb as the county awaits a McAuliffe’s signature.

“Short term rentals like Airbnb are here and they’re a reality of life. The new sharing economy is everywhere,” said Mike Mullin, Delegate for the Virginia House of Delegates’ 93rd District, which covers parts of James City County.  “At the same time we’re exploring that, we need to make sure we’re protecting and accommodating the businesses that exist. This bill reaffirms the rights to the localities, particularly Williamsburg and James City County, to be able to regulate residential property use. This is common sense.”

Because the applicants do not plan to serve meals to their guests their home is not considered a bed and breakfast, and therefore falls into the category as a short-term rental, according to meeting documents.

“I don’t think Airbnb is something we can stop.  It’s something we need to make work for us,” said Will Lee, the general manager for War Hill Inn Bed and Breakfast.  “They’re the biggest purveyor of rooms in the world. You can’t stop the 500 pound gorilla- you need to get along with it.”

Lee said he pays an 11.6% lodging tax on the bed and breakfast’s profits, which is divided between the county and the state, as well as a $2 tax per night per night.  He added that he would like to see residents who list their home on Airbnb do the same.

“My understanding of the new legislation is that they would be treated equally to local hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, timeshares in collecting the revenues that would be due per night- the sales tax and the two dollar lodging tax,” said Chairman Onizuk.

James City County provides for two different types of special-use permits for short-term home rentals, the board said.  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 Dillon’s currently reside on the property they intend to rent.

The second type of special-use permit is for a “tourist home,” which does not require the homeowner to live on the property.

According to Dillon, her residence nestled in a bamboo grove, is connected to the rental unit by a four-foot section of wall.  Without that wall, the couple’s house- now considered a single family home- would be considered a duplex or subdivision, which is subject to a different zoning designation.  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.

“A guy has his own home is free to do what he wants to do with it,” Lee said.  “I believe in freedom, who am I to say?”

Steve Roberts, Jr. and Adrienne Berard contributed reporting.