Short-term rentals, or short-term lodging, known familiarly and commercially as Airbnb, VRBO and other online platforms, are the subject of a proposed Short-Term Lodging Ordinance being considered by the Fairfax County Planning Commission. Short-term lodging (STL) is not a new phenomenon, but one that has expanded broadly as part of the “sharing economy,” as homeowners seek to rent bedrooms in their home, or perhaps the entire house, for periods of 30 days or less. In most cases, the rental period is a weekend or a few days, making the neighborhood property a home-based business. Some affected neighbors call the STL a “boutique hotel,” not what they expected in a residential setting.
County planning staff estimates that there are more than 1,500 active STLs operating in the county. While few have elicited zoning complaints from neighbors, two Notices of Violation (NOV) were appealed by the property owners to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The BZA upheld the Zoning Administrator’s determination that these two homeowners were operating illegal STLs. Four other NOVs resulted in compliance. An on-line survey last summer elicited thousands of responses, ranging from allowing unlimited STL use, to complete prohibition. The answer probably is somewhere in between, which is why the proposed Zoning Ordinance amendment is eliciting so much discussion in the community and at the Planning Commission.
Virginia Code 15.2-983 addresses localities’ “general land use and zoning authority.” That authority from the Virginia General Assembly allows the Board of Supervisors to regulate lodging, as it does other land uses, through the Zoning Ordinance. The STL ordinance amendment under consideration recommends a permitting process that also will establish safety standards for homes being used as STLs. Several other options also are being considered: number of days during the year that a property can be rented as an STL; number of persons allowed during the rental; whether the owner should be on-site during the rental period; how many parking spaces are available; building code issues (sprinklers, fire alarms, etc.); noise, trash and the like.
Of grave concern to homeowner associations (HOAs), and other neighborhoods with covenants, is how STL affects their covenants. The county is not a party to private covenants between and among neighbors, and is not responsible for enforcing them. Many HOA covenants do not have specific language outlawing STLs by name, and amending covenants can be a long, laborious, and expensive process for neighbors. The county could issue an STL permit, but cannot require operators to obtain permission from their HOAs before issuance of permits. The proposed ordinance amendment language reminds the STL operator of his or her obligation to comply with restrictive covenants, but the onus is on the HOA to enforce any covenants.
Additionally, there are reports that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has requested certification that no STLs were being operated in at least one HOA, possibly placing in jeopardy mortgages underwritten by FHA.
Last week, the Planning Commission deferred its recommendation until June 14. The public hearing before the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for June 19 at 4 p.m., but that date is subject to change.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.