Rappahannock County and the town of Washington, like local jurisdictions everywhere, are struggling to keep up with the changing shape of hospitality.
On the one hand, a Virginia Housing Commission-convened work group is studying the potential impact of a bill, the Limited Residential Lodging Act, passed by the General Assembly in March, that would take all the regulation — and some local taxation — of so-called “airbnb” operations out of the hands of local jurisdictions.
On the other hand — since legislators decided to await the group’s recommendation and required that the bill be reintroduced at the next annual session in January 2017 before becoming law — local governments are continuing to regulate short-term rentals of residential properties, primarily by enforcing local zoning laws, and to tax those who wish to operate what in most cases is defined (locally by both the town and the county) as a tourist home.
And to contact those who already are, apparently without permission.
“In some cases,” said County Administrator Debbie Keyser, “the homeowners just don’t realize that they are operating what is considered a tourist home.”
Keyser said this week that in the past few months alone, the office of the commissioner of the revenue — which began monitoring airbnb.com and such vacation-rental-by-owner sites as vrbo.com for local listings several years ago — has sent out between six and eight letters to property owners who appear to be in need of a permit to operate a tourist home.
The Washington Town Council is due to discuss in closed session, after its public meeting next Tuesday night (July 5), “possible zoning violations” by town residents who own a home on Gay Street that has been rented regularly for several months by visitors, according to the listings and reviews on airbnb.com. This follows a long public discussion at its meeting last month, which centered on how airbnb operations compete unfairly with registered tourist homes and B&Bs, which must apply for and receive a permit (a $400 to $500 process in Rappahannock County), undergo inspections and pay meals and lodging taxes.
If the Limited Residential Lodging Act is reintroduced and passes the General Assembly early next year, says former longtime county administrator John McCarthy, neither the town nor the county would be able to ask property owners who want to rent out a room or house online for less than 30 days at a time — the normal distinction between long-term renters and transients — to apply for a B&B or tourist home permit.
The would-be state law allows airbnb-type operations in any area that is zoned residential, and prohibits local jurisdictions from enforcing any special restrictions other than those normally enforced in residential zones. Airbnb operations would be licensed at the state level, and while state sales and use taxes would be collected by the “hosting provider” — airbnb.com and its competitors — local lodging taxes, such as those collected in Rappahannock and the town of Washington, would apparently not.
The county collects $200,000 to $250,000 a year in meals and lodging taxes; the town’s figure (thanks largely to the Inn at Little Washington) collects closer to $300,000 a year.
“It would be a significant hit,” said McCarthy, explaining that the supervisors sent a letter in February protesting the local effects of the Limited Residential Lodging bill to both Del. Michael Webert and Sen. Mark Obenshain.
Both of Rappahannock County’s Republican representatives in Richmond voted for the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier).
Statehouse battles have been going on for the past year elsewhere — Airbnb, a company based in San Francisco, having apparently decided to lobby for uniform standards at the state level rather than deal with the ins and outs of local regulations and negotiations. The Washington Post reported in March that Airbnb had retained at least 33 lobbyists or firms in a dozen states.
As other industries “disrupted” by web-based, do-it-yourself technology in recent decades — think Uber and traditional taxicab companies, or the web’s effect on paid classified advertising and the news business in general — Virginia lodging industry leaders have said, at least publicly, that they are not afraid of Airbnb, and in fact welcome.
They invariably add, as longtime Rappahannock tourism advocate and B&B owner Phil Irwin did at the Washington Town Council’s discussion last month: “All we are asking is for a level playing field.”
Local governments will have to come to terms with property owners’ new options, McCarthy said. “If [someone is] interested in opening a B&B, and this law goes into effect,” he said, “why would anyone decide to open anything other than an Airbnb?”
Keyser said the county’s planning commission and supervisors will be revisiting the zoning ordinances to update definitions of B&Bs, tourist homes and short-term residential lodging to reflect recent developments — including, if necessary, the changes that Virginia’s Limited Residential Lodging Act would bring.
In the meantime, she said, those who legally should have tourist-home permits will be required to seek them.
Interested in a B&B?
Not that it’s related to the rise of Airbnb, but two of Rappahannock County’s most distinctive luxury B&Bs are being quietly advertised for sale.
Both operated by accomplished chefs, the Foster Harris House in Washington and Glen Gordon Manor in Huntly are available, respectively, for $1.65 million and $3.6 million.
Foster Harris House’s nine bedrooms sit on slightly more than a half acre on Washington’s Main Street, not far from the Inn at Little Washington — the place that, some 40 years ago, first put Rappahannock on the fine-dining and luxury-accommodations map. Glen Gordon Manor’s 12 bedrooms are clustered amid the distinctively fetching views afforded by its 45-acre hilltop property off Zachary Taylor Highway north of Flint Hill.