Despite the absence of council members Jerry Goebel and Brad Schneider and town attorney John Bennett, a quorum of the Washington Town Council Monday night unanimously passed the town’s 2018-19 budget and also approved $5,000 to to promote the town and support the Inn at Little Washington’s culinary festival “INNstock” — part of the Inn’s 40th anniversary celebration planned for the Sunday of Labor Day weekend.
The head table soon filled up, as did about 45 of the 75 minutes of the meeting (delayed one week by a storm-related power outage) as planning commission members Judy DeSarno and Caroline Anstey joined the council for a joint public hearing on an ordinance addressing short-term P to P residential rentals — services offered by platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO. It’s an issue many local governments have been wrestling with since Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law last year giving localities authority to enforce such rentals and collect lodging taxes.
Town attorney Bennett, with input from the planning commission, has been drafting language since late last year for the ordinance, through a special use permit, defining who is an “operator” and what is a “short-term rental.” A final vote was delayed Monday until the council’s July 9 meeting, by discussions of issues that included rules on limiting and enforcing occupancy.
In the public hearing, former council member Ray Gooch raised the occupancy concern: “We have limited the B&Bs to two persons for each bedroom, but we have no limitation at all on the number of people that can be at one of these Airbnb houses,” he said.
“We looked at what was enforceable,” DeSarno replied. “We were not certain how we could get someone to stand outside and count the people going inside knowing that I have four bedrooms, but the regulations from the Airbnb ‘association,’ as we will call it, are pretty strict on how many people you can have come in.”
Council member and planning commission chair Fred Catlin further explained: “One of the requirements that we put in there is there is that anyone who is going to have one of these [rentals] that it needs to have current certification of good standing with and in evidence of Airbnb or other reputable person-to-person rental agencies.”
But the new proprietor of the Gay Street Inn, Deb Beard, asked, “Why does the planning commission think this is unenforceable for short-term rentals, and it is enforceable for B&Bs?” DeSarno later noted that “we also have run into the issue of what you can tell a person they can or cannot do with their residence, and the town stands in some jeopardy of being sued about property rights.”
“Some good questions were raised and we don’t have [the full] town council here tonight to able to help give us an immediate response,” said Catlin, “and I don’t feel comfortable going forward without legal counsel.”
After discussion and a positive consensus at the April meeting, the council voted Monday to approve funds towards the Inn’s marketing efforts.
“To propose the town spend $5,000 in support of INNstock,” Mayor John Sullivan motioned, “with the purpose of driving people to this town, building awareness of the town, helping our businesses in the town, raising our profile, and frankly taking advantage of efforts [towards] the Inn’s exposure, which would be substantial.” Catlin seconded and it passed unanimously, with Inn chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell recusing himself. The funds will come from the town’s meals and lodging taxes. Residents of the town are not taxed.
The event will feature a “family reunion” of former employees of the last 40 years, who will return to create an outdoor feast, with music and fireworks, for an estimated 700 guests. All town residents will receive free admission ($250 each, valued at $33,250 and a total of $39, 950 to the town with marketing costs).
The council also accepted Sullivan’s nominee for the vacant seat on the Architectural Review Board (ARB) — George Eatman, a former tax accountant and coauthor of the “A Treasure of Anglican Art,” a book on Episcopalian architecture.
Otherwise, the approved budget totals $852,250: Town, $364,700; WaterWorks $112,050; Wastewater $375,500.
Sullivan also reminded attendees that the deadline for the Nov. 6 election is June 12. Sullivan is not running for a third term, as he told the Rappahannock News in a article in its May 3 edition. “I would encourage people to seriously consider running,” Sullivan said Monday night. “I think competition is healthy; it’s good to get fresh blood as it were.”
During the public comment, former council member Jean Goodine thanked both Sullivan and town clerk Laura Dodd: “I would like to express my thanks to you, John, for your service to the town and how much you have done for it. And I’d also like to express gratitude to Laura Dodd, for decades of work, behind the scenes and making things happen.”
Responded the two-term mayor: “It’s been an extraordinary experience, it’s been absolutely great, I’m indebted to people in the Council, the planning commission, the ARB, I’m indebted to the citizens of the town and county.”