Comments caution against the ‘slippery slope’ being built in Richmond
For a meeting that had very little on its agenda and ended with little being resolved, the nearly 2½- hour regular meeting of the Rappahannock County Board of Zoning Appeals last Wednesday (Aug. 24) was notable for its attention to a common issue raised at recent public meetings— tourist homes owned by non-residents, B&Bs, Airbnbs (so named for the website that helps homeowners rent lodging to short-term visitors) and other alternative lodgings.
About 45 minutes into the meeting, during a public-comment session, Keir Whitson of Hampton district seemed to sum up eloquently and forcefully the worries of many as he addressed the BZA about “what I think is a huge potential threat to Rappahannock County.”
“You have Airbnb lobbyists in Richmond pushing for laws that would deem moot all of the good work that you do to control who operates what and where in this county,” he said.
On the state level, a Virginia Housing Commission-convened work group is now studying the potential impact of a bill, the Limited Residential Lodging Act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly in March, that would take all the regulation — and some local taxation — of airbnb operations out of the hands of local jurisdictions. The bill won’t take effect until the General Assembly reconsiders it at the next legislative session this winter, leaving the regulation in local hands for now.
“I believe if we go down this slippery slope and if we, collectively — the BZA, planning commission and board of supervisors — don’t figure out a way to stand up to Richmond, stand up to Jill Holtzman Vogel and the lobbyists who are on her to change the law, to basically strip you of your authority to protect your own community … soon this small community that we all invested in will not the community we bought into in the first place,” said Whitson, who ran for Hampton district supervisor in 2015.
“There should be two bright line tests [of applications],” he said. “If the neighbors oppose it, deny it. And if you’re an outside investor and not a resident of the county, you don’t have the right to rent your property.”
Tourist homes with absentee owners
Whitson’s comments were largely in response to a current application by Bob and Julie Coonce, but he also referenced a controversial application in January by Desmond and Heidi Dodd for a special use permit to operate their home on Gid Brown Hollow Road as a tourist home while they reside in South Africa. Whitson lives on Harris Hollow Road, not far from the Dodds’ Gid Brown Hollow property.
Like the Dodds, the Coonces are applying for a special-use permit to run their vacation home on Quann Lane in Chester Gap as a tourist home when they are not there. The couple, who live in Middleburg with their three children, plan to advertise the home on Airbnb.com and Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO), two online marketplaces for people to find accommodations without going through booking agents.
Local attorney Taylor Odom, representing the Coonces, told the board that the couple had received a cease-and-desist letter from the county for renting out their property on airbnb. Odom asked that the application be tabled until issues raised at the previous week’s Rappahannock County Planning Commission could be addressed. (At its Aug. 17 meeting, the planning commission voted unanimously to table the Coonce application until the Coonces pay delinquent lodging-related taxes and work with the residents of Quann Lane on a road maintenance agreement, among other concerns.)
There was some confusion among the BZA members about whether they should even address the application after the planning commission tabled it. However, several residents of Quann Lane attended the meeting expecting to be able to speak about the application. BZA member David Konick asked for a show of hands from people wanting to speak. Several raised their hands.
Saying that it was “highly unfair” not to hear from people just “because the planning commission did not give a recommendation,” Konick suggested the board hold the public hearing. “Let’s hear what these people have to say,” he said. A motion to that effect was accepted unanimously by the BZA members.
Some of the speakers on the Coonce application had also spoken at the planning commission meeting. Ben Atkins, who lives on Quann Lane, told the board that since the planning commission meeting, the Coonces had made an effort to meet their neighbors. “They are very nice people,” Atkins said. “I would welcome them as neighbors, but I am against their application for a tourist home. I am not concerned about [the Coonces] but scared about people who don’t know how to drive” on the narrow gravel road.
Thomas Leake, who has lived on Quann Lane since 1970, also talked about the dangerous road conditions, such as the “Chester Gap fog. Last week it was so foggy I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.” He also said he was against the tourist home application.
Jock Nash of Hampton district said he knew the couple has already been renting their property as a tourist home. He was concerned that they were not adhering to the definition of a tourist home, as a lodging type where guests “generally stay a week or more.” He suggested that if the application were approved, it be on the condition that it be rented for a week or more at a time.
BZA chair Alex Sharp said his understanding was that a week’s stay was not a requirement and “we have not required a week or longer [when approving applications], but if it’s a problem, it needs to be looked at.”
After hearing several more comments, Sharp recessed the public meeting, noting that people can speak again in the future whenever the Coonce application is taken up.
Parma: Residence or B&B?
Early in the meeting, Konick asked that an item of old business be added to the agenda — the status of work being done at Parma B&B on Christmas Tree Lane near Washington. According to Konick, the construction being done under a residential building permit is in violation of the zoning ordinance.
In February, Dr. Nicky Singh applied for a special-use permit to expand the B&B from three bedrooms to five. However, before the BZA would consider the application, they required Dr. Singh to address several issues, including paying back taxes and working with neighbors on a road maintenance agreement.
Before the April BZA meeting, Singh withdrew her application.
In June, she, her husband and daughter applied for a residential building permit, submitting substantially the same plans as for the B&B expansion. Construction has begun on the site.
The issue discussed by the BZA members at the Aug. 24 meeting was whether the construction was for a residence or to expand the B&B.
After discussion, the board voted to “communicate to the Singhs that they must come to the BZA to amend their special-use permit,” as Konick put it, “and they cannot maintain their special use permit with the construction of a residence.”
The vote also included a request that the county’s building official, Richie Burke, issue a stop-work order to the Singhs until they come back before the BZA.
According to the zoning ordinance, Konick said, it is misdemeanor to change the use of a structure without BZA approval.
County Administrator Debbie Keyser said by phone Wednesday that she is “working with the building office to determine if there’s a violation sufficient enough to issue a stop work order.”
In a separate phone call, Konick said, “This is in the hands of the county administrator and the building office,” and he warned that “what [Burke and Keyser] have already done and what they do from here could have potentially huge consequences for the county.”
A video of the meeting is available on the Rappahannock Record’s Youtube channel at youtube.com/watch?v=GeXSoP68LQ4.