A ‘time-out’ on Airbnb approvals

Ed Timperlake

21st Century internet global connectivity has been bringing legal and regulatory challenges on what can be allowed, especially in rural counties throughout America. Anyone with a room or property can now try to make money by short-term renting. For point of discussion I will use “Airbnb” to include all internet sites that connect short-stay renters with property owners.

Traditional “B&B” usually meant the homeowner would be in the house, generally there to prepare and share at least one meal a day for the guests. The idea is to share the experience of the place. “B&B” had the owner living with guests. This is self-monitoring by the nature of the definition of the owner being there.

Internet computer listings are now allowing reservations for places to stay more like a hotel, and Rappahannock leaders are facing the challenge of protecting all parties in this fast-growing global network.

Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, says his company has reached a new milestone: “4 million listings worldwide. The San Francisco-based startup now offers listings in 191 countries, and its total number of listings is higher than the top five major hotel brands combined.”

I fully understand how important tourism and economic development can be for Rappahannock County in designated zones. Variances to existing zoning must be done with respect for the environment and appropriate commercial controls. I would like to offer a series of questions to be considered:

Will the proliferation of Airbnbs take longer term affordable housing off the Rappahannock housing market?

A May 3, 2018, article in Bloomberg News says, “Owners who list their apartments for short-term stays essentially are removing those homes from the rental market, reducing the supply of housing and pushing up the cost of what remains.”

Will a tragic “law of unintended consequences” hit renters who will not be allowed to renew their lease because the Airbnb business model is much more lucrative?

What are the financial penalties to our traditional B&Bs?

Will owners be liable if tourist groups show up and for any reason they decide not to go forward with the rental?

Are the properties compliant with all provisions of the Americans with Disability Act, and if not, can the owners and county be sued? The ADA gives people with disabilities the right to file lawsuits in federal court and obtain federal court orders to stop ADA violations.

Does the word “breakfast” indicated by “bnb” mean a food service establishment? Will the county now be liable to do food/kitchen inspections?

Will there be recurring inspections to ensure smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, and where applicable, carbon monoxide detectors are active and testing the devices is accessible to all overnight lodgers?

Will renting space in this “hybrid tourist home/Airbnb” include the use of the entire home, including accessory dwellings and using the fields/lawn for RVs and campers?

What are the county safety requirements to ensure that a short-term residential rental property complies with zoning, building, fire and other safety codes that are designed to protect public health and safety, property values and neighborhood character?

Will the zoning variance process begin to now authorize use of the home for any other commercial use such as parties, banquets, weddings, meetings, charitable fundraising, commercial or advertising activities or any other gatherings for direct or indirect compensation?

Can our county legal team figure out how to protect renters from U.S. and global identity theft?

Airbnb has a published “vetting” process with enough qualifiers to avoid direct legal responsibility if something tragically goes wrong with a “guest.”

Does Airbnb perform background checks on members?

“If we have enough information (usually at least the user’s first and last name plus date of birth) to identify a guest or host who lives in the United States, we check certain databases of public state and county criminal records, as well as state and national sex offender registries for criminal convictions and sex offender registrations. If we have enough information (usually at least the user’s first and last name plus date of birth) to identify a guest or host who lives outside the United States, we may, to the extent permitted by applicable laws and to the extent available, obtain the local version of background or registered sex offender checks,” says its website.

It has been reported that there were approximately 16 million cases of identity fraud in the U.S. in 2017. It’s unclear how pernicious this problem is globally.

An internet business model is a two-way street for owners. Individuals being allowed into one’s home are empowered to say anything they want with pictures, especially if they are upset or simply just not nice people.

Finally, is there a mechanism for enforcement if any problems arise?

I am a huge advocate of environmentally sustainable agriculture and the farming focus of Rappahannock County. Everything being advanced to change the comprehensive plan should be in harmony with minimum government micro-management. My questions are offered to arrive on a consensus for the best solution possible.

I have no fight with the concept of Airbnb for any interested citizen of Rappahannock, but in my judgment the county is not ready to vote on allowing any more or offer zoning variances for Airbnb-types of tourist homes. This entire issue must be addressed quickly with full transparency because of the massive repercussions of going forward piecemeal.

— The writer lives in Castleton

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