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Association forms to protect short-term lodging interests in Virginia

As Charlottesville officials ponder the possible regulation of short-term home and room rentals in city neighborhoods, a new trade association has formed to protect and promote the property rights of those who offer the service.

“Our association is not anti-regulation and we’re not looking to do this use without anyone knowing what’s going on,” said Pete Caramanis, the attorney for the new Virginia Short Term Lodging Association.

“In fact, our goal is quite the opposite,” Caramanis said at the group’s official launch At the Old Metropolitan Hall on the Downtown Mall Friday.

In response to concerns that the practice of short-term rentals may be incompatible with residential neighborhoods, the City Council has directed the Planning Commission to study the issue to see if the zoning code needs to be updated.

Travis Wilburn, the founder of Stay Charlottesville, will serve as president of the association. He said that while the organization will seek to ensure property owners can still offer short-term rentals, it also will advocate for regulations that ensure they are good business-citizens.

“We are going to educate these owners in how to operate their properties in the right way,” Wilburn said, referring to the payment of appropriate taxes and adherence to applicable laws.

Among those in attendance at the association’s kickoff event was Charlottesville’s commissioner of revenue.

“It was reassuring and sounds like most of the folks want to do the right thing and pay their taxes,” said Todd Divers, who was elected to the position in 2013.

The city currently has a classification for “homestay” and “bed and breakfasts,” and Divers said he can collect the lodging tax from those uses because there is a valid business license. In those situations, owners or a designated innkeeper must live on the property.

However, Divers said he cannot collect taxes from everyone who offers short-term rentals.

“Issues come up when the homeowner isn’t there all the time or they don’t live in the home while the transient is staying there,” Divers said. “That is not allowed by the current zoning apparatus.”

Despite that fact, the practice has grown in recent years in part because of websites, such as Airbnb, that connect guests with short-term rental opportunities.

Wilburn said he got into the short-term rental business in 2007 when he built a carriage house on his property and began to rent it out on a nightly basis.

“No one believed that Charlottesville was a place that could support this kind of tourism option,” Wilburn said.

One member of the association said he hopes the group’s efforts can help ensure the practice can continue.

“We need to define this and make sure it operates legally and above board,” said Scott Stinson. “Everybody needs to pay their taxes, and there needs to always be someone to get in touch with if there’s a problem at the property.”

Stinson and his wife purchased a property in Belmont that has two houses on it.

“They were really rundown and about ready to collapse,” Stinson said. “We rebuilt them from the ground up.”

Stinson said he has the support of many of the site’s neighbors because he was able to save blighted property. He said he hopes the association’s work will allow others to take advantage of additional revenue sources that can come from short-term rentals.

Caramanis said the association will be submitting a draft ordinance to city planning staffers for their consideration.

“Our goal is to make sure that the responsible short-term rental uses that are happening right now are able to continue into the future,” Caramanis said.

Matthew Kiessling, executive director of the Short Term Rental Advocacy Center in Washington, is working with the association on the zoning issue.

“The goal is to get some sort of formalized and legalized ordinance on the books that says what a short-term rental is,” Kiessling said.

Kiessling pointed to Nashville, Tennessee, as one community that recently adopted an ordinance defining short-term rentals as those where transient occupants spend less than 30 consecutive days in the structure.

As of this week, people who wish to offer the service in Nashville must obtain a permit once a year. The permit can be revoked after three complaints have been filed and investigated by zoning officials.

“It’s very straightforward and treats all short-term rentals exactly the same,” Kiessling said.

At the other extreme, some localities prohibit the practice by not allowing any rentals for periods of fewer than 30 days.

Caramanis said the association has not yet drafted language for a potential definition.

“I’m very confident we’ll be able to find an end-product that alleviates the concerns that the locality may have but also protects an individual’s right to continue this use on a property,” Caramanis said.

This week, the city Planning Commission held a work session to discuss a potential zoning change to define and regulate the practice.

City planner Matt Alfele said the commissioners did not reach consensus.

“They are still having an internal debate relating to a lot of the details of transient lodging facilities, but [have given] no overarching direction,” Alfele said.

The matter is expected to return to the Planning Commission for a public hearing in May.