CouncilMeetingForAirbnbs

Standing at the lectern, Wesley Smallwood (left) and his fiancee Dionne Jones address the Harrisonburg City Council about their short-term rental violation. 

Harrisonburg City Council approved two special-use permits to allow short-term rentals last Tuesday, but deferred an application for a seven-bedroom home on New York Avenue back to the planning commission as a result of an unreported violation.

Last March, the council adopted new zoning ordinance regulations associated with short-term lodgings, commonly referred to as “Airbnbs,” that require property owners to obtain a special-use permit before housing tenants. Property owners Wesley Smallwood and his fiancee, Dionne Jones, of Orange Sky Investments LLC failed to cancel a reservation while waiting on their application to be reviewed.

They were issued a $100 fine for their violation, which wasn’t reported to the planning commission before they gave their recommendations to the council to grant the permit. Smallwood said the City detected the violation when a third party booking agency continued to advertise their property after the Aug. 1 cutoff to operate without a permit. Jones maintained that the ordinance was unclear on whether they must cease and desist operation while in limbo.

“I do have an issue with the violation,” Harrisonburg City Mayor Deanna Reed said to the couple. “If a councilman advises you, you should listen to that.”

When the agenda item went up for public hearing, Smallwood revealed that their investment in short-term rental properties for the past 18 months has supplemented their income, which was reduced by 60% since he went on long-term disability in 2016. Jones said they made the decision to continue to rent their property due to their current financial state.

Councilman Chris Jones responded that the council heard public hearings and gave ample warnings before requiring that property owners obtain a permit to continue offering their properties online.

Smallwood said that he was “glad” he didn’t cancel the reservation because the renters traveled from Florida and booked in advance of the deadline to operate without a permit. Chris Jones, on the other hand, wasn't amused.

“That’s like saying ‘Hey, I don’t need your permission. I’m going to do it anyway,’” Chris Jones said. “Your customer service to an Airbnb customer is not my concern — not in my vote anyway.”

Smallwood regularly attended council meetings to prepare for the day his property was on the agenda. He invited Chris Jones to see the renovations he made on the short-term rental home after a meeting three weeks ago.

“He spun around and said, ‘Look, I don’t care how nice your place is fixed up,’” Smallwood said. “‘You’re not getting a special-use permit.’”

Chris Jones denies that he refused to grant the permit based on existing animosity between himself and Smallwood.

“I don’t have any more or less personal feelings toward him or any other resident that may be asking for the services of a council member,” Chris Jones said. “I do not know him any more than I know you.”

Chris Jones said he declined the offer to visit the property because it’s not “traditional” for city council members to visit properties. Instead, he said the council makes special-use permit decisions based on information presented by the planning commission. Additionally, Chris Jones lives near Smallwood’s rental home and is familiar with the area.

Seven community members spoke during the public hearing about Orange Sky Investments LLC’s property. Erin Bishop, who lives adjacent to the rental home, was streaming the meeting online when she decided to jog over to City Hall to speak on an impulse.

“To hear in people’s own words that they are operating a business in flagrant disregard for the zoning that’s in place ... it is really concerning,” Bishop said.

Bishop’s mother said she planned to “grow old” on that street, but said she fears the presence of a commercial entity may change the dynamics of the residential community. 

One member of the community, Rhonda Lentz, asked the council to consider the difference between standard long-term lease owners who fail to maintain their property and small businesses like Orange Sky Investments LLC who regularly upkeep their property because their success is dependent on positive reviews and future bookings.

“This is America, land of the free,” Lentz said to the council. “What does free enterprise mean to each one of you all?”

Although the planning committee expressed a favorable recommendation for the council to move forward due to the application’s similarity to others that have been approved, the council unanimously decided to defer back to the planning commission in light of the new revelation of the violation. Councilman Richard Baugh, a former member of the planning commission for 14 years, expressed his disappointment with the undetected violation.

“Frankly, the general idea that we’re now voting on something that’s very different from what the planning commission looked at bothers me a lot,” Baugh said.

Smallwood said he believes that many other community members who are seeking special-use permits have also been treated unfairly due to changes in the approval process since the regulations were originally implemented. He said some property managers are expected to make their rental homes their primary residence and to be present during tenant lodging periods, while others don’t need to meet those same requirements. Smallwood said the planning commission should pull and invalidate all the permits that have already been granted and start over.

“The governing body that the citizens — taxpayers — are going before has to be more professional than what it has been, where bias can’t be harbored against people for whatever — disability, race,” Smallwood said. “There’s something going on.”

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.