HARRISONBURG — The newly required special-use permits for short-term rentals can be a source of extra income for young families who want to save up for a bigger house, or can be a way for someone to not lose their dream home.
For David Miller, short-term rentals have been his saving grace.
Miller is no stranger to the Friendly City. Most know him best from his founded restaurant, Dave’s Taverna, an American-Greek restaurant which quickly became the heart of Harrisonburg for over a decade before bankruptcy forced its closure in July 2013.
“The last full year of business, in 2012, we did $3 million in sales but it wasn’t enough to support all the debt I got involved in,” he said. “But Dave’s Taverna was the spark that led to the revitalization of downtown.”
Miller had a number of businesses and land in Harrisonburg, but due to the progression of an undiagnosed mental disorder at the time, he said he began to face personal and financial difficulties.
In 2015, after losing all his assets, he was diagnosed with bipolar and was left with the dilemma of how to keep his house.
“For the longest time I felt guilty about having this disorder,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It’s not something I can control.”
Miller has been renting parts of his house on Summit Avenue to people since about 2016, because it’s the only way for him to keep from losing his dream home.
Miller designed and built his house in 2007, which costed him $1.2 million.
“When I came to Harrisonburg in 1981 to Eastern Mennonite University, I decided I wanted to build my dream on the hill there,” he said. “I wanted to build this house and stay here.”
His house, which he said is currently valued at $550,000, is a “pretty hefty mortgage.”
“I wouldn’t be able to sell this house even if I wanted to because I’m so far underwater,” he said. “So having a special-use-permit is the only thing that can keep me from losing my house at this point.”
In Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council unanimously approved a special-use permit for Miller to allow for seven accommodation spaces with up to 12 people at one time.
Voting in favor were Councilmen Chris Jones, Richard Baugh, George Hirschmann and Mayor Deanna Reed. Councilman Sal Romero was not present.
City staff had recommended council deny the request because of the location of Miller’s home within the neighborhood.
His is the second property on Summit Avenue that city staff has recommended denial for a special-use permit.
The first property was on 981 Summit Ave, which went before council on June 11 for approval.
Staff did not recommend approval because the house was “deep within a residential neighborhood,” Adam Fletcher, city’s director of planning and community development, said at the June 11 meeting.
Fletcher said at the Tuesday meeting that the reason for denial was because the home is entirely within a residential area in the city.
“It is not an area that we should be promoting business operations,” Fletcher said, adding that people are expecting those types of neighborhoods to just be a standard residential neighborhood.
Jones said having the opportunity to make extra income by renting out space in one’s house is important for Harrisonburg residents and it’s important to give them that opportunity if possible.
”This is a big investment for people,” he said. “Their home is a big investment.”
Miller said in 2013 when he lost his restaurant, he wanted to start up another business as soon as possible to provide income, so he looked into opening a regular bed-and-breakfast on Summit Avenue.
“The city staff at the time was recommending my application be approved, but because at the time the neighbors objected to it, I withdrew my application because I didn’t want to disrupt the neighborhood,” Miller said.
He said Summit Avenue has a lot of visitors driving, walking and cycling throughout the neighborhood because of the beautiful scenery on the hill that shows off the mountains and Valley.
Renters at his house will have the opportunity to take in the views because Miller has around 40 windows in his house.
“The thing I like most about my house, besides the style of it, is that my art is my windows,” he said. “I don’t have much wall space for art — you just have to look out of the window to see art.”
A third Summit Avenue property is expected to come before council soon for approval for a special-use permit.
The property, located at 990 Summit Ave., went before Planning Commission on Wednesday, where the board recommended approval with a 4-2 vote.
Voting in favor was Gil Colman, Brent Finnegan, Mark Finks and Zanetta Ford-Byrd. Voting against was Kathy Whitten and Henry Way.
Whitten has voted against all three Summit Avenue requests. Way has voted against two of the three requests. He was not present for the meeting where Miller's request went before the commission.
Staff also recommended approval of the 990 Summit Ave. request.
Fletcher told council Tuesday that as decisions are being made and precedents being set, staff is looking into the big picture to see what council is wanting to see in neighborhoods like Summit Avenue.