Gov. McAuliffe on Airbnb

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

The General Assembly will have the final say, but Arlington officials are moving forward – quickly – with plans to impose regulations on homeowners who offer short-term rentals through online sites such as Airbnb.

“This has been a big rush-rush,” said Martha Moore, who chairs the planning and zoning committee of the Arlington County Civic Federation, during a presentation on Nov. 1.

Moore was not necessarily thrilled by the pace of the proceedings. “I was totally caught off guard by this, as I think all of us in this room were,” she said at the Civic Federation meeting.

The proposal by county-government staff will be considered by County Board members in December. If enacted, Arlington would impose a set of rules and restrictions on those offering beds, bedrooms or their whole houses to others for limited-duration rentals.

But the regulations could be rendered moot by the General Assembly, which earlier this year passed legislation banning localities from imposing any rules on such rentals. Gov. McAuliffe called a time-out, sending the measure to the Virginia Housing Commission for review, but the matter is likely to be back in the spotlight when the legislature reconvenes in January.

“We are anticipating [lawmakers] will act – we can’t predict what they’re going to do,” acknowledged Deborah Albert of the county government’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, which has crafted draft ordinance changes slated to be considered Nov. 30 by the Planning Commission and Dec. 10 by the County Board.

Getting rules enacted now could help Arlington be protected against state legislation, if General Assembly members opt to grandfather localities that already have regulatory plans in place. Charlottesville and Roanoke are among a small number of Virginia communities that already have adopted a regulatory framework.

Under the proposal set for consideration by the County Board, property owners would be able to rent out space in their homes for any amount of time, but no individual could rent the same dwelling for more than 30 days per calendar year.

“We’re not looking to create another hotel-type situation,” Albert said, promising that the proposal aims to “protect the character of residential neighborhoods.”

Technically, short-term rentals inside homes are illegal in Arlington, but county officials estimate as many as 1,600 property owners may be listing their homes with online services.

“We know this use is occurring,” said Albert. The county government had received “three or four” complaints about it, she said, but also has received inquiries about the logistics of offering homes for rentals.

Albert’s rounds also have included a meeting with county advisory panels, as well as the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. Kate Bates, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, said her organization had a “great conversation” with county staff on the issue, but had not formulated an official position on the proposal.

“While business stakeholders across a range of affected industries offer varying perspectives, there is consensus about ensuring a level playing field,” Bates said. “The question that remains is how to define a ‘level playing field,’ and what steps must be taken to execute this.”

To try and stay ahead of the issue, the Civic Federation on Nov. 1 debuted an online survey for member organizations about the issue. It will remain open through Nov. 27 – “we do want to give people time to complete it,” Moore said – with initial findings reported by Nov. 30.

Civic Federation members on Nov. 1 peppered Albert with questions ranging from the need for liability insurance to civil-rights concerns.

The staff proposal headed to the County Board does not propose imposing a fee on those wishing to rent out their properties, at least for the first year, although homeowners likely would need to get a business license. County staff want the authority to enter properties being rented out, but would only do so if complaints were received, not as a regular occurrence.

(Some were not convinced: Arlington County Taxpayers Association president Tim Wise guffawed when Albert broached both the no-fee and no-inspection proposals.)

Bill Braswell, a Civic Federation delegate and veteran activist, reminded the audience that – as a “Dillon Rule” state – localities can’t act on many issues without authorization from Richmond.

“We don’t know what the General Assembly is going to do,” he said.

Neither do those in the legislature itself. Even state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st), who sits on the Senate committee that will consider any proposal next year, says the question of renting out homes on a short-term basis is a matter fraught with complications and the potential of unintended consequences.

“It’s a real sticky wicket – not an easy thing to do to thread the needle,” Favola said.

Favola, who served on the County Board before her elevation to the General Assembly, said Arlington officials were wise to get a plan in the pipeline before the matter returns for discussion in Richmond.

“We can use that, at least as a sample of what local governments are doing,” she said.

For information on the proposed ordinance change, see the county government’s Web site at www.arlingtonva.us and search “homestay.”

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