City Council denied a request for a short-term rental at 165 New York Ave. that had been up in the air for two months at its Tuesday meeting.
The request came from Orange Sky Investments, which is owned by Wesley Smallwood and Dionne Jones.
Voting against were Councilmen Chris Jones, Sal Romero, George Hirschmann, Richard Baugh and Mayor Deanna Reed.
The application had gone through Planning Commission twice and been recommended for denial both times.
Romero, who serves as council’s representative on Planning Commission, opposed the request Tuesday because, he said, the maximum number of 12 guests was too high, with which Baugh agreed.
“It would be interesting to know if [Planning Commission’s] vote would’ve changed if the numbers in this unit had been reduced even further,” Baugh said.
Baugh asked Adam Fletcher, the city’s director of planning and community development, if staff had concerns with the requested number of guests.
Fletcher said no because council already approved up to 12 people for a rental on Summit Avenue, 13 for a rental on Smith Avenue and nine on a Lee Avenue property.
How many guests should be allowed is an ongoing issue as city staff and Planning Commission are revisiting short-term rental regulations.
Jones said he voted against the permit because the owners were found operating an Airbnb without a permit, and he didn’t want to set the precedent that it was OK to violate the regulations.
Dionne Jones said in a prior meeting that she opted to operate without a permit because the city's fine was lower than the Airbnb fine she would've faced for canceling an Aug. 24 reservation.
The fine for a first offense is $100, followed by $200 for a second and $500 for subsequent offenses.
“I’d ask the body to increase the penalty,” Chris Jones said, requesting that council make the first offense $500. “It will make people really think twice about [illegally operating],” he said.
While the owners were going through the permit process, city staff received complaints about the property being rented without one.
On Monday, Dionne Jones sent an email to the Daily News-Record saying Thanh Dang, assistant director of planning and zoning, showed up onto the property Saturday and questioned some guests about who they were and what their lodging arrangements were.
In an interview Tuesday, Jones said a family friend of Smallwood, who is a James Madison University alumni, was staying at the residence while in town and was approached by Dang.
“The fact that she came out to our property off-duty instead of calling us — I don’t understand how that is OK,” Jones said.
Dang said Tuesday that a complaint was received over the weekend, and she went out to the residence around 1:30 p.m. to check into it.
“It was unusual that there was a complaint received over the weekend,” she said. “But because there was a complaint about a rental violation, we couldn’t wait until Monday to address it.”
Dang said other zoning violation complaints, such as long-term occupancy violations, can be addressed during regular working hours.
“With short-term rentals, if we don’t go see if the violation complaint is true when we get the notice, the violation may no longer be in place by the weekday,” Dang said, adding she did nothing wrong.
That was the second complaint the city received about the property.
“Our neighbors are watching so when they see strange people, they are gonna call in,” Dionne Jones said. “That’s the environment that council has created. If they are going to invite complaints, someone will always complain. That’s just how people are.”
Jones said City Council needs to come up with a plan to handle short-term rental complaints.
In other news, a request by Claudia McClean for a special-use permit for a short-term rental at 907 Ridgewood Road was denied due to neighbors' concerns.
McClean has lived in the neighborhood for around 15 years and had been operating a short-term rental for 10 months prior to Aug. 1, when the city started requiring homeowners to have a permit.
As of Nov. 4, 14 letters were sent to city staff opposing McClean’s request.
A number of residents spoke during the hearing opposing the request due to safety and concerns of losing the uniqueness of the neighborhood.
Carissa Henriques, a resident of Ridgewood Road, said she is worried about her three children and other kids in the neighborhood.
“There are no sidewalks, so the kids play on the street,” she said. “This presents a true risk for vehicular traffic to the children in the neighborhood.”
Another resident said he values the atmosphere of the neighborhood, which is made up of single-family homes, and wants to protect it.
“If we can’t protect the single-family neighborhood here, where can we protect a single-family neighborhood?” he asked council.
One speaker was in favor of the request.
Ashley Swartz, who is not a city resident but is invested in real estate in Harrisonburg, said she has two young children and rents space in her home for up to four guests at a time.
“This is not a safety concern in terms of the experience that they’re expecting. This is not commercial use. This is just using the residential space to its capacity,” she said, comparing it to hosting friends or family from out of town.
Following the hearing, Chris Jones asked Fletcher if any formal complaints have been made about approved short-term rental properties. Fletcher said he was not aware of any.
“That’s a key component for me,” Jones said. “I’ve heard people say, 'Yeah, we want them' and I’ve heard people say, 'No, we don’t want them,' but I hadn’t heard anyone say, ‘You approved one and you shouldn’t have and here’s why.’”
Jones later abstained from the vote because he didn’t have enough information.
Voting against were Hirschmann, Romero and Baugh. Reed voted in favor.