Short Term Rentals (STLs)

Public Hearings on Short-Term Rentals 

By Fran Wallingford.
April 27, 2018

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hold its hearing on short-term rentals on Thursday, May 3rd 2018.  The Board of Supervisor’s hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, June 19th.

Following passage of a 2017 state law  that allows local governments to regulate short-term rentals [STL] County staff has been working on these new zoning rules. The County says that the proposed rules balance neighborhood concerns with homeowners’ desires to earn rental income through the sharing economy.

Except for bed-and-breakfast uses and hotels, the current Zoning Ordinance does not permit transient occupancy, which is defined as a rental of less than 30 days.  The staff report notes that there are an estimated 1,500 active Airbnb listings in Fairfax County and that the County has received complaints about this kind of use.

At the time the Staff Report was written, the Department of Code Compliance had 13 open cases under investigation and issued 6 Notices of Violations (NOVs). Of those 6 NOVs, 4 resulted in compliance, while 2 were appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). The BZA upheld the Zoning Administrator’s determination that these two homeowners were operating illegal STLs.

Some of the proposed rules for this new Zoning Ordinance and issues are:

  • Property Owners or Renters can offer only their primary residence as short-term lodging. This prevents businesses from operating multiple, full-time rentals, such as a hotel or motel, in residential neighborhoods.
  • Guests would be limited to six adults, and the lodgers must all be associated with the same rental contract to prevent multiple rentals of a property at the same time. There is no limit on the number of children.
  • Properties may not be rented for events or commercial purposes, such as parties, weddings, or fundraisers. A property cannot be rented out on a short-term basis for more than 90 nights a year or 25 percent of a year.
  • It has not been determined if homeowners or renters must be present in their property when it is used as short-term lodging.
  • To address the absence concern, the proposed amendments require that the STL operator identify an Authorized Agent to be available and responsible to respond to issues or emergencies in the absence of the STL Operator.   What does “available and responsible” mean?  The agent can be anywhere in the world and still be available.
  • Operators of short-term lodging will have to get a permit, which could be revoked if there are violations, and properties must be made available for inspection by county code enforcement staff upon request.  The Board of Supervisors does not plan to add staff to handle this additional workload.
  • Operators of short-term rentals would be required to pay transient occupancy taxes. County leaders calculate that these rentals could generate about $428,000 a year. Of this amount, nearly $250,000 would go to the county’s coffers, and the remaining amount would be used to support tourism and regional transportation as required by state law. Does $250,000 cover the cost of providing this use or will the general population end up footing the bill? The document does not mention paying Tangible Personal Property Taxes – something that other home occupations pay.
  • Safety measures to protect lodgers are important, as they would not be particularly familiar with the layout or safety features of a dwelling/mobile home in the event of an emergency. The proposed amendments require that dwellings used for STLs meet all currently applicable requirements related to building code or manufactured home safety regulations.  How would the County be sure that the dwelling meets all the building code safety regulations?  Would GFI outlets be required in bathrooms, etc.?
  • Sleeping rooms: Converting basements or other non-traditional spaces to sleeping rooms requires compliance with the most current building code, which would require a second means of egress from the room, such as an emergency egress window in an existing basement.   How would the County ensure that ‘sleeping rooms’ comply with the building code?  How would the County ensure that all egresses are safe?  Would rope ladders be required for upper story bedrooms?
  • Safety Equipment: The amendment proposes that a working fire extinguisher, interconnected smoke detectors, and interconnected carbon monoxide detectors (if there is a fireplace and/or gas service provided to the home) must be present in every dwelling offering STL use. If these features are not present in the home due to the age of the structure, they must be added before beginning an STL operation.  How will the County ensure that this is met? 

Items not addressed in the Ordinance:

  • Neighborhood Safety:  There is no discussion of neighborhood safety.  Folks are always told to teach their children not to talk to strangers.  The police tell us ‘to know your neighbor’.  How are we supposed to keep our neighborhood and children safe when we don’t know who lives next door or down the street?
  • The proposed new zoning ordinance on short-term lodging would not prohibit individual homeowners associations or community associations from establishing more stringent rules or even banning short-term rentals outright.  Many of these HOA documents require approval of 2/3s or more of their members in order to be changed – something very difficult to achieve. The costs and other legal fees associated with doing this can also be beyond what can be handled by the average HOA.
  • Parking – the documents state that Citizens claimed STL users often park vehicles in reserved spaces, block access to driveways and mailboxes, or use all the available public parking.  In evaluating whether the ordinance should therefore require STL operators to provide parking, staff considered that home child care, home offices, and a variety of other home occupations are currently permitted under the Zoning Ordinance without a requirement for an additional off-street parking space.  Staff does not mention that home child care use usually involves just drop off and pick up – not long-term parking.  Nor does staff mention that home offices and a variety of other home occupations do not allow clients to come to the home!
  • Staff does not currently believe a designated parking space is warranted.  However, the amendment proposes to require all advertisements for STLs to indicate if and where on-site parking is available for the dwelling offering STL. If there is no on-site parking available, the advertisements must so state. This information will help lodgers manage their expectations and plan for their transportation needs.  Many areas of the County [such as parts of Prosperity Avenue] do not have on street parking.  It seems that the lack of on street parking should also be stated.
  • More than 7,600 people responded to an online survey.  This survey cannot be relied on for soundness since it was susceptible to multiple entries by individuals using various devices and had no controls limiting entries to county residents only.  A Supervisor even identified a suspiciously large number of responses from a single zip code within his district.
  • Many areas of the County have septic fields.  Will these fields be reevaluated to determine if the system meets the requirements necessary for this new use of the property?
  • Parts of the County are on well water and there are no fire hydrants nearby. Yet, the County is proposing increasing the density/intensity in the area without addressing fire safety. The community has been told that the unavailability of water is not an issue because the County’s fire department has water trucks that could be sent to the site.  Can a truck handling an emergency in the southern part of the County get to the northern or western part of the County in a timely manner?

In a separate issue, Fairfax County is considering whether to create zoning rules for commercially managed apartment buildings that would offer short-term lodging.

The Board of Supervisors goals, as stated in the Comprehensive Plan say:

“As the county matures, there will be an increasing need to preserve and revitalize older residential communities.  It will be important to protect existing residential areas from the encroachment of commercial development and the impacts of institutional holdings and uses.  The compatibility of infill development will also be of increasing concern.

  • Objective 8: Fairfax County should encourage a land use pattern that protects, enhances and/or maintains stability in established residential neighborhoods.

Policy a. Protect and enhance existing neighborhoods by ensuring that infill development is of compatible use, and density/intensity, and that adverse impacts on public facility and transportation systems, the environment and the surrounding community will not occur.

Policy b. Discourage commercial development within residential communities unless the commercial uses are of a local serving nature and the intensity and scale is compatible with surrounding residential uses.”

“Policy d. Implement programs to improve older residential areas of the county to enhance the quality of life in these areas.”

Does the proposed Zoning Ordinance meet the Board’s goals?

E-mail your views to: the Planning Commission at Plancom@fairfaxcounty.gov
Supervisor Providence District at Provdist@fairfaxcounty.gov
Supervisor Mason District at Mason@FairfaxCounty.gov

By Fran Wallingford. Chair, Land Use Committee. Providence District Council (PDC)