BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — Virginia Beach is seeking ways to deal with short-term rentals, an effort complicated by an existing, largely unregulated online rental marketplace whose beneficiaries have sought to work directly with state lawmakers.
This past month, Virginia Beach voted to send recommendations to the General Assembly that effectively seek to defend the ability of local governments to control how such business is conducted in people’s homes.
The city’s challenge is to discuss policy and regulation that would add some requirements to short-term rentals in the city, but the longtime rental culture in Sandbridge complicates matters.
There is concern about restrictions that might hurt business there, and some of these interests conflict with residents fighting the rise of large, residentially-zoned rental properties called event homes in an area people described as a resort, neighborhood or both.
For more than a year, there have been civic league meetings and committees, city meetings and groups looking at such issues, a series of public hearings to widen a discussion of event homes citywide, and, to the dismay of some in Sandbridge, a proposal submitted by some residents suggesting a permitting process – though some of the authors of that recommendation have said they do not oppose short term rentals. [The proposal is at the Sandbridge Beach Civic League website via sandbridgecivicleague.org.]
Community tensions were evident during a recent gathering of the civic league, according to people who were present and meeting minutes. The divide also was clear at City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 15, during a meeting in which the city council voted to send a legislative request to the General Assembly.
This is not an entirely new issue. The city council also sought the ability to regulate online rental platforms in the past.
Virginia Beach officials have been concerned about the “home sharing economy” when it comes to rentals through digital platforms such as Airbnb, including issues some neighbors have with rentals, and the overlap of those concerns with the event home issue and rental culture of Sandbridge has become a source of friction.
“This issue started off one place, and it’s gone another place, and it has a lot of people nervous,” Jim Reeve, a Sandbridge businessperson who served on the city council and heads the Sandbridge Beach Business Association, said shortly before making his remarks during the Nov. 15 meeting.
Before the city council voted to pass along their recommendations to the state, Mayor Will Sessoms told the many Sandbridge residents and property owners in the audience that the council was not poised to enact a permit process or restrictions, as some had believed.
Mark Stiles, the city attorney, gave a rundown of recommendations, which are part of a wider set of legislative priorities.
The city effectively wants the commonwealth to ensure the city has power to deal with rentals, including a say in collecting and auditing taxes, ensuring insurance is in place to cover commercial activities in residences, and the ability to enact and enforce health and safety requirements.
Then people spoke. Most were from Sandbridge. Some were concerned about a permitting process, and a few who spoke opposed additional layers of government. Speakers included those concerned about the impact of event homes in their residential community and some of the people who own such homes, renting them to pay bills for their retirement home.
Sandbridge resident Jean Davis said rules come with change, but she said she did not believe some of the suggestions would be good for the community. Charlie Kelly, also a Sandbridge resident, said an ad hoc committee that studied the issue and led to the city’s legislative recommendation has caused “a disturbance” in the community. The city should study the economic impact of what changes might mean for Sandbridge, he added.
Jim Moffat of Sandbridge Realty spoke of the financial responsibility rental agencies have to their property owners, and he noted that there is a mutual desire to avoid issues such as noise and parking in the community.
He said enforcement of rules on the books related to parking and noise is the key, not a permitting process for short-term rentals.
“Please don’t regulate the rentals out of Sandbridge,” Moffat said.
Reeve, during his comments, noted that the issue has “brought a great divide in the community.”
Regarding possible permits, he noted that there is concern an irate neighbor might have another neighbor’s permit revoked with a complaint. And he pointed out that Sandbridge pays its way through additional taxes.
The diverse concerns indicate the challenge of addressing issues such as online platforms and event homes in a community in which a number of residents rent homes, tourism drives local business and there are both digital and more traditional rentals.
And, of course, Sandbridge is residentially zoned. People live there.
As committees and officials have realized amid a thorny, lengthy dialogue, still ongoing, much is at stake as the city seeks an approach to address a variety of concerns.
Sandbridge is not the only area that could be affected by local efforts to control short-term rentals, many of which compete with the lodging industry, but it is a big part of the conversation.
“We are different,” Reeve noted.