Ready to regulate: Albemarle eyes homestays

Carolyn McGee, president of StayVA and owner of The Inn at 400 West High in the city, says all homestays should be held to the same standards. Photo by Eze Amos Carolyn McGee, president of StayVA and owner of The Inn at 400 West High in the city, says all homestays should be held to the same standards. Photo by Eze Amos

In Albemarle County, about a third of the homestays are flying under the radar. At a May 3 Board of Supervisors work session on the topic, county staff said something must be done to regulate them.

The county has received 60 applications since 2004, and of those, 27 have been approved, according to Rebecca Ragsdale, the senior permit planner in the county’s Community Development department. Take a look at Airbnb, and more than 100 options in the county are listed.

“A fair number of applications came in just recently and are still under review or were denied because smoke detectors were not up to date,” she says, and adds that applications are not approved until building code, fire marshal and health department requirements are satisfied.

Currently, homestay operators in the rural and development area may rent up to five rooms inside a single-family detached home with an owner or manager also occupying the home. In the rural area, residents can rent up to five rooms in an additional structure.

Ragsdale says the county is concerned for a number of reasons and as some supervisors pointed out at the work session, it’s an issue that should be addressed now before the gap between those in compliance and those operating illegally widens.

“Fairness [and] equity issues have been raised in terms of taxation,” she says. “If these homestays are not licensed, there has been no verification that basic safety requirements are met.” This includes up-to-code smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors and compliance with health department requirements.

Carolyn McGee, president of StayVA and owner of The Inn at 400 West High in the city, says unregulated homestay owners should be required to follow even the smallest regulations.

“If you’re going to serve alcohol, you can’t just leave a bottle of wine with a bow on it. You have to have an ABC license,” she says. “As a B&B owner, that’s what we have to do.”

In the last General Assembly session, a bill was passed to give localities the autonomy to regulate their own homestays, though many already do.

Numerous industry professionals and StayVA members sat in the gallery while the bill was signed, she says. “We’re happy with it.”

At the work session, Supervisor Norman Dill suggested the county define a minimum for what counts as a business. “You’re allowed to have a yard sale without having a business license,” he says, and plenty of people rent out their houses for UVA’s graduation weekend. Do they technically need a business license, he asked. “Why encourage people to break the law because it’s difficult to comply?”

Dick Cabell owns The Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm, one of approximately 20 full-time bed and breakfasts in the city and county, all of which have business licenses and collect and remit transient occupancy taxes.

“As a B&B owner, I don’t want to be vindictive about this because we chose to go the route we did and we have benefited from it and we think we have provided some benefit as part of the team,” he says. “This Airbnb thing is a whole different concept and now the county is in a quandary.”

But Cabell says the playing field should be leveled so he can continue to compete with the unregulated homestays.

“Our business has gone down in the last three years, but not in a way that we’re going to go out of business,” Cabell says. “I just can’t donate as much to my grandkids’ college funds. I can’t take my trip to Jamaica because my income as gone down. The guy next door to me who’s renting his house out and not telling anyone—he’s going to Jamaica.”

The BOS will have a public hearing June 14 to discuss regulating homestays.

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