, 2015

Defining rental uses
becomes tedious chore
for planning commission

by Renss Greene

HEATHSVILLE—The Northumberland planning commission on May 15 proposed a major overhaul to rental definitions in county ordinances.

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Changes to definitions included specifying that the owner of a bed and breakfast live on or adjacent to the premises, striking the term boardinghouse entirely, simplifying the definition of a single-home unit, combining hotel and motel into one category, adding a definition for vacation home rental, and rewriting the definition of a tourist home entirely.

The public hearing centered on the conflict between individual property rights and the rights of the community.

Maurice Johnson of Reedville summarized the past three years of tourist home debates from a rental operator’s perspective: “It’s the Salem witch trials,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen such a show, but the reality is that there weren’t any witches in Salem, there weren’t any tourist homes here. There were no evildoers here.”

Johnson was the first of several operators to frame the issue as a question of property rights, and said government regulation was unnecessary, since market forces would close bad rental properties.

Cynthia Taylor of Reedville agreed that government regulation would not be necessary, arguing that insurance regulations would be more stringent anyway.

“If you use your insurance companies, all you’d have to do is ask these owners who want to do this for proof of insurance,” Taylor said.

She was also one of several people to say that the community needs an answer fast with the summer tourist season fast approaching.

“There are a lot of questions, and yet we need to move forward immediately and expedite this as soon as we can to the board of supervisors to generate some of this tourist dollar that we’re going to miss this whole season if we don’t move fast,’ Taylor said.

Tourist home operator Phoebe Mix told the board that the public hearing process for conditional use permits does not evaluate applications on their merits.

“The conditional use process, what it turned into was whether or not you could get more bodies into the room to make more noise than the other side,” Mix said.

Catherine Bennett of Kilmarnock, owner of rental properties in Indian Creek Estates, argued that the many different categories of rental proposed are unnecessary.

“I think rental is rental is rental,” Bennett said. “Sure, sometimes people stay shorter, sometimes they stay longer, and my question is, when does it change over? If somebody stays for two months, is my vacation rental now not a vacation rental, or is it just a rental?

“Not everybody who stays in our house is a tourist,” she added. “Very few, actually, are tourists. Sometimes people are having their houses remodeled. One time I had a lady stay there for a few months who was leaving her husband. I’ve had schoolteachers, I’ve had doctors at the hospital, I’ve had all kinds of people stay in this house.”

However, argued Kaz Kazenske of Reedville, taking away the public hearing strips people of their right to be heard in government.

“If you attended the board meeting where this very similar language was debated, this room was packed,” Kazenske said. “And a vast, vast majority of the residents in this community, whether they were in an HOA [Home Owners Association] or not, had one underlying factor: We want to be heard, and if we’re not in an HOA, our government structure is the only structure we have to be heard.”

Wayne Corey of Reedville called for simplifying the definitions to simply include hotel/motel, bed and breakfast, and vacation rental. He also supported the permit process and suggested adding a lodging tax.

“You raised a couple of scary words for this hearing,” commented commissioner Bill Kling.

Commissioner Al Fisher Jr. suggested that the manner in which boat houses are regulated would work well for other rentals. Boat houses are permitted with conditions, and no public hearing is required unless there is a complaint from a neighbor.

“It gives the public the opportunity to come forward and bring notice to the government officials, and it also gives the individual the right to go ahead with it as long as he meets the general requirements and the general public, neighbors across the creek, people don’t object,” Fisher said.

Opinions were nearly as mixed as in the hearing when the commission discussed the issue. A draft definition for the word “transient” proved divisive.

“I do have a problem with the definition of transient,” said commissioner Albert Penley, echoing the concerns of some rental operators in the meeting. “I think it’s a degrading connotation to a set of people.”

Commissioners Charles Williams and Kevin Elmore disagreed.

“I don’t have that opinion,” Williams said. “I have transients come to my business, and they come in on two, three, four million dollar boats.”

“The word transient in the fashion that we are trying to use it is not derogatory,” Elmore agreed. “It’s just somebody else’s form of thinking. The word transient, by the way that we’re trying to use it, is not lasting, not permanent, staying a short period of time.”

“I’m concerned that we try to solve problems that don’t really exist, anticipating them,” said commission chair Garfield Parker. “If you don’t like the word transient, and we want to move on, let’s drop the word transient.”

The commission voted unanimously to strike the definition for transient from the draft ordinances and replace it with the word ‘persons’ in other definitions.

After assistant county administrator Luttrell Tadlock noted this would leave the county with no distinction between short and long-term rentals, the commission voted to modify the definitions of tourist home and vacation home rental to specify “30 days or less.”

The new vacation home rental category is similar to tourist homes in that neither provide meals, and both are rented on a daily or weekly basis to 14 or fewer persons, but distinct in that vacation homes are rentals of an entire property, while tourist homes are rentals of individual guest rooms.

The draft ordinances will now bring the issue again back to the board of supervisors.

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