By Keir Whitson
Late last year, a couple who lives overseas completed renovations on a small, dilapidated cabin they purchased up the road from me in Harris Hollow. Initially, my neighbors and I were happy to see a rapidly deteriorating log house turned into an attractive, livable weekend getaway for the owners.
Soon after completing renovation work, however, the property owners petitioned the county for permission to lease their cabin as a tourist home to weekend and other short-term renters. One long-time Harris Hollow resident spoke plainly but eloquently when he told the county’s planning commission that he “didn’t want to have a different neighbor every weekend.”
The board of zoning appeals (BZA) ultimately rejected the application, concluding the county is not obligated to “reward” tourist-home applicants just because they have purchased and invested in Rappahannock County real estate. As one BZA member summed it up: “You decided to spend money to buy and renovate your property, but that doesn’t mean we, the county, owe you anything.”
Recently, another tourist home application for a property in Chester Gap came before the BZA. Neighbors expressed concern that an unattended weekend rental property on their narrow, rural road could undermine their safety and quality of life. Tourist home proposals from absentee investors like those in Harris Hollow and Chester Gap are only going to increase in number as more property owners look to websites like Airbnb.com, Homeaway.com and VRBO to monetize their real estate investments.
Lobbyists in Richmond — working on behalf of Airbnb and other similar companies — are pushing for changes to the laws that govern the administration and enforcement of local zoning ordinances. If made, these changes would deem moot the work that the board of supervisors, the planning commission and the BZA do in controlling who operates what in this county, including the location of tourist homes.
Put simply, this threat to our way of life is no different than the threat of unfettered development that led thoughtful citizens and local government leaders to impose in the 1980s the restrictive zoning rules meant to retain the county’s rural and scenic nature.
Our zoning ordinances have helped make this county unique among any of the places I’ve ever lived or visited. And with just over 7,000 residents, we generally know our neighbors. In the spirit of being a good neighbor, I do not oppose the basic right of the Harris Hollow and Chester Gap applicants to own property or live in our beautiful county. What I do oppose are absentee real estate owners who pose a fundamental challenge to the way we all live as they try to cash in on their investments through short-term rentals.
We are walking on a slippery slope. I challenge the board of supervisors and the county administrator to fight the effort in Richmond to strip us of our rights and authority to protect our county and way of life. I also challenge the supervisors and administrator to set guidelines for tourist homes that mirror the intent of the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
Without an action plan, we risk losing the fundamental character of our county, including losing neighbors who have lived here a lot longer than me. Soon, this small community in which we have all invested (in the true sense of the word) may not be the same community we bought into in the first place.