HARRISONBURG — At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, two special-use permits to have short-term rentals were passed with little to no concern, while another request was referred back to Planning Commission.
The two properties that council unanimously approved for a special-use permit were at 130 S. Brook Ave. and 789 Blue Ridge Drive.
The third property that went before council Tuesday was from Orange Sky Investments LLC at 165 New York Ave. The owners of Orange Sky Investments LLC are Wesley Smallwood and Dionne Jones.
The applicants requested to allow up to 14 guests in the seven-bedroom home.
Documents originally show that the property is not the applicant’s primary residence and that there would be no operator present during the lodging period. The property is professionally managed by Evolve Vacation Rentals. In an Aug. 28 email to the city’s Director of Planning and Community Development Adam Fletcher, Smallwood said he will be taking 165 New York Ave. as his primary residence.
Staff and Planning Commission had recommended denial of the original request because it wasn’t the primary residence, but after the notice that the location would be Smallwood’s primary residence, staff recommended approval.
Following the Planning Commission meeting and speaking with the applicants about not operating while the process of obtaining a permit was in the making, Fletcher said there was a complaint from someone who suggested the applicants were still operating the short-term rental.
After investigation, staff found that applicants were still operating and are fining them a civil penalty of $100.
Planning Commission was not aware of the violation at its meeting.
Individuals found illegally operating a short-term rental without a permit will receive a violation notice with a $100 fine for the first offense and failure to bring the property into compliance by ceasing operation and removing any advertising of the short-term rental will result in a $200 fine for the second offense and a $500 fine for any subsequent offense.
Since the application did change since being seen by Planning Commission, council unanimously decided to send it back to the commission to get its recommendation.
Voting in favor was Mayor Deanna Reed, Councilmen Chris Jones, Sal Romero, Richard Baugh and George Hirschmann.
During the hearing, Dionne Jones said she was facing a $500 fee if there was a cancellation on the Aug. 24 reservation in order to comply with the permit rules. She said most reservations are made six months in advance and the Aug. 24 reservation was made last year.
“There were no provisions from the Planning Commission if you’re in limbo getting your special-use permit, whether or not you could still be operating,” Dionne Jones said.
Chris Jones, who advised Smallwood to discontinue operation, said in his opinion the $500 fine would be worth it to stay out of violation “so that I could keep renting it through perpetuity and make tons of money.”
Chris Jones, Reed and Baugh had issues with the fact that the applicants conscientiously continued operating within the city illegally.
“I think that if a councilman advises you — that you should kind of listen to that, because we try to give you the best advice that we can give you so that we can lead you in the right direction,” Reed said.
Romero said he doesn’t encourage people to violate the law, “but at the same time, if there is a consequence — and in this case we agreed that as a body that the consequence is a fine — then I believe that he should pay the fine and then we vote on the application.”
Baugh said the city is in a situation where there are regulated rules “and when somebody says ‘I crunched the numbers and it told me that it was OK to violate the rules,’ I don’t agree that we just have to accept that.”
During the hearing, a number of people spoke in favor and against the request for the permit.
Jack Garmer, who lives next to the applicants, said there were issues with the prior owners of the home, but the property was changed to Smallwood’s and has been pleasant. He said he has experienced no issues with the applicant’s holding an Airbnb.
Another New York Avenue resident, Erin Bishop, said she is a small-business owner and strongly believes that one must follow the laws made within the area in which one is conducting business.
“Those processes [the city makes] are things that I really appreciate being a part of,” Bishop said. “I don’t like to see them being taken advantage of.”
She said it’s hard with seeing the applicants’ past actions and willingness to disregard the regulations to think their future actions will be different.
Michelle North pointed out that Smallwood said he bought the property for a business and didn’t intend to live there and she feels the home operates as a hotel, which is unsuitable for the residential area.
There has been no scheduled date for when Planning Commission will review the application.