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2016-11-02 / Featured / Front Page / Real Estate

County says no to transient rentals – for now

By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER


The Board of Supervisors last week denied a conditional-use permit to allow John Spence and Alton Proctor to operate a bed-andbreakfast at their home in Meadowbrook West. 
Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer The Board of Supervisors last week denied a conditional-use permit to allow John Spence and Alton Proctor to operate a bed-andbreakfast at their home in Meadowbrook West. Ash Daniel/Chesterfield Observer The Virginia General Assembly may yet establish a statewide regulatory framework that would allow citizens to legally rent out their homes through a popular worldwide website.

Until it does, the Chesterfield government has clearly signaled it wants no part of such activity.

The Board of Supervisors last week unanimously denied a local couple’s application for a conditional-use permit to continue using their home as a bed-andbreakfast.

“Most of the folks who spoke against this case did so because they did not want to have a commercial business in this neighborhood. I believe their concern is valid,” said Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland.

Neither John Spence nor his partner, Alton Proctor, attended the public hearing, during which several of their neighbors pleaded with the board not to sanction the operation of a “tourist home” in the Meadowbrook West community.

During a subsequent telephone interview, Spence and Proctor suggested they skipped the meeting because they knew the Board of Supervisors wasn’t going to rule in their favor.

“If we were a white, straight couple, we wouldn’t be getting so much grief,” Proctor said.

Spence and Proctor have hosted 150 guests since they began using Airbnb.com, an online marketplace for short-term accommodations, to rent out two of the four bedrooms in their home in 2012.

A neighbor apparently filed a complaint last year with the county, which investigated the allegation as a possible violation of the property’s zoning.

According to Chesterfield’s zoning ordinance, by providing overnight accommodations for transients, Spence and Proctor were classified as operating a “tourist home.” Such activity is prohibited in a residential area without a conditional-use permit.

Spence was issued a notice of violation in November 2015 and another in March 2016. He applied for the permit the following month.

During the Planning Commission’s September meeting, Spence insisted neither he nor Proctor had any idea they were violating their property’s zoning when they began renting out rooms in their home.

“I’m sure that a few people hearing this are currently renting out a room for profit or have done it in the past,” he said.

“This permit would have zero negative impact on our quiet, peaceful neighborhood. I really expected that when our neighbors realized we’ve been doing this for almost four years and they haven’t even noticed, that it wouldn’t be a problem for anyone.”

Instead, the case created a firestorm in Meadowbrook West, a neighborhood located off Hopkins Road near the Falling Creek Reservoir, as well as nearby subdivisions Garland Heights and Meadowbrook Estates.

An email circulated by members of the Meadowbrook West Women’s Club compared the Airbnb industry to “opening a box of termites in our neighborhood … gnawing at our community peace of mind and leaving us to hold the bag on safety.”

At contentious community meetings in July and August, many citizens expressed concerns about Spence and Proctor exposing their homes to criminal elements and hurting their property values.

Steven Brown, who lives in Meadowbrook West with his wife, called the July meeting “a circus.”

“There were accusations of hosting ISIS, pedophiles, serial murderers. It was quite an eye-opening experience,” Brown said. “The worst of our culture was displayed that night.”

Brown was one of 16 speakers who supported Spence and Proctor before the Planning Commission. None spoke at the Board of Supervisors meeting, which was dominated by their critics.

Melvin Diaz, president of the Meadowbrook Estates Civic Association, told the supervisors that the Airbnb business model, if approved in Chesterfield, will “tear at the fabric of residential neighborhoods.”

Another county resident, Ginny Arendall, maintained that the county government isn’t “equipped to regulate this type of operation.”

“That would leave the monitoring up to us residents,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I’m at an age where I don’t want to monitor my neighbors. I want to enjoy my neighbors.”

Several citizens who spoke at the Planning Commission public hearing argued that like Uber and other elements of the so-called “sharing economy,” Airbnb is here to stay and the county should figure out how to manage it.

There are currently more than 50 Chesterfield homes listed for rent on Airbnb.com.

Kirk Turner, the county’s planning director, acknowledged that his department has only enough staff to investigate potential zoning violations after receiving citizen complaints.

“I do think the Airbnb concept is up-and-coming, but I think there are going to have to be some regulations,” said Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle.

Both chambers of the General Assembly voted for bills that would allow the state to regulate Airbnb, but enforcement of the legislation was delayed for a year to allow time to study its impact on Virginia’s hospitality industry.

The results of that study are expected to be presented to the Virginia Housing Commission next month.

“I think the concerns that were raised this evening illustrate exactly the hurdles Airbnb faces to try to establish itself,” said Clover Hill District Supervisor Chris Winslow.

“One thing I will say is there’s certainly a market for $31 a night rentals. That’s how low some of these figures go. But I don’t see a framework that’s workable so far, and I hope the legislature will provide some guidance on that.”

Turner noted that the county will amend its zoning ordinances to allow “transient rentals” if required to do so by the state government. Until then, it will continue to deal with them through the conditional-use process.

“We have our fingers crossed that it will come up again in the General Assembly,” Spence said. “Ideally they’ll make it legal and we can start back up [on Airbnb] next year.”

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