What’s wrong with Airbnb? Homestay hosts wonder why county’s pushing new regs

Albemarle County officials are proposing new regulations for local homestays—and local homestay operators don’t understand why. Albemarle County officials are proposing new regulations for local homestays—and local homestay operators don’t understand why.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That seemed to be the overall consensus of community members who spoke up at a crowded January 8 roundtable to discuss potential “homestay” (read: Airbnb) regulations in Albemarle before they go before the planning commission in February.

County staff members say many local homestays aren’t following existing regulations, and in addition to trying to enforce those they’re proposing even more new rules. But residents say these aren’t necessary.

“We are looking to regulate an issue that’s not a big enough issue for us to be investing the time,” said an Old Trail resident and realtor speaking from her seat. She said she has clients on both sides of the argument about whether the county should further manage these types of transient occupancies. “I try to be Switzerland, but I’m also about less regulation and less government involvement in my life.”

For popular homestay sites such as Airbnb, several folks argued that business regulates itself through a guest rating system.

“You live and die by your reviews,” said one attendee. Added another: “Let good old business take place, and it’s going to fall out on its own.”

The second man was perturbed by a seemingly arbitrary 45-day limit the county wants to impose on whole house rentals. The county is also proposing that whole house rentals may only take place where the dwelling is situated on more than five acres, and any rental on a smaller property will be limited to two guest rooms.

He said he inherited a 75-year-old family property. To only be able to rent the whole house for 45 days a year greatly restricts his profit margin.

Amelia McCulley, the county’s director of zoning, attempted to clear up some confusion. Homestay owners with rentals on properties greater than five acres can rent rooms for an unlimited number of days per year, just not their entire houses. Outside of the 45 day limit, an owner or manager must also reside on the property.

That was also a point of contention for some of the 75 attendees, who filled every chair at the meeting.

“Renters tend to be a little more subdued if there’s a responsible party nearby,” explained chief of zoning Bart Svoboda.

One attendee then said that he’s been renting a property he lives only 15 minutes away from. He said he’s had no problems. “We’re there every day, we just don’t sleep there.”

Besides requiring the owner or manager to live on-site, the county only allows homestays to operate in single-family detached homes and only five guest rooms may be rented. Those in favor of not imposing more regulations pointed out the small number of complaints the county has received.

Approximately 350 results turn up on Airbnb for Albemarle County—but it’s difficult to determine whether they’re actually in the county, or just nearby. The county has processed 134 applications for homestays, and senior planner Rebecca Ragsdale says they’ve received 33 related complaints since 2012.

Asked one man at the meeting, “Shouldn’t there be hundreds of complaints and issues if this is a real issue?”

The planning commission will hold a work session on the proposed regulations February 12.

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