Waters Edge

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The Water’s Edge in Penhook is one of several communities around the lake where short-term rentals are currently allowed.

The Franklin County Board of Supervisors held a joint meeting with the Franklin County Planning Commission on Feb. 18 to discuss the future of short-term rentals in the county.

Short-term rentals are currently allowed in more than 80% of the properties in Franklin County. Many of those properties are located in the southern half of the county that has no zoning regulations.

In the zoned northern half of the county, short-term rentals are allowed by right in areas zoned RPD and PCD, which includes portions of Smith Mountain Lake. In areas zoned A1, short-term rentals can be permitted by obtaining a special-use permit from the county.

Steve Sandy, Franklin County director of planning and community development, who led the Feb. 18 meeting, said many residents still believe short-term rentals are prohibited in the county.

“I still hear people say short-term rentals are not allowed in Franklin County,” Sandy said. “I’m continually trying to dispel that myth.”

There are currently 97 properties operating short-term rentals in the county with more than a third of those at Smith Mountain Lake. Those short-term rentals have filled out a certificate of compliance with the county and pay a 5% transient occupancy tax. Sandy said there are likely more short-term rentals that have not been identified by the county.

Interest in short-term rentals is steadily growing in Franklin County. Sandy said the county has received four applications for special-use permits for short-term rentals so far this year. In the previous four years, the county only received five, Sandy said.

The meeting held Feb. 18 was to decide what, if anything, should be done about short-term rentals in the county. More than a dozen county residents also attended to listen to the discussion and provide input.

Sandy provided supervisors and planning commission members with multiple options at the meeting that included increasing or decreasing the number of zoning districts that allow short-term rentals. He also provided options that would put greater regulations on the zoned districts that allow short-term rentals.

One concern discussed at the meeting was how to regulate property owners operating short-term rentals in a way that prevents them from disturbing neighboring residents. Clark Childers, president of the homeowners’ association for The Water’s Edge, discussed one ongoing short-term rental in his community that has received numerous noise violations and was recently taken to court by the county.

In addition to paying county taxes, Sandy said short-term rentals are given a set of requirements from the county that include necessary parking for everyone staying at the home, noise must be kept at normal levels and no more than two adults are allowed per bedroom. It is nearly impossible for the county to enforce the guidelines due to limited staff, Sandy said. Most of the rentals take place during the weekend when staff is out of the office as well.

Sandy said the current fine for a short-term rental not following the requirements is $100. He said the low fine was likely not a significant deterrent for the property owners, and the time county staff takes to properly document the violations likely costs the county more than what it would get back in the $100 fine.

Childers said the three-bedroom home in The Water’s Edge was violating the noise requirements, as well as allowing significantly more people to stay at the home than the two adults per bedroom limit. The home is often rented out to between 16 and 18 people, he said. “It has caused a lot of disruption in that part of the community.”

Blackwater District representative Ronald Mitchell said having such a large number of people staying in a home at once could be dangerous if there was a fire. He said the homes should also be open to inspections from the fire department and should follow the same safety guidelines as hotels. Anyone not following the requirements should face much larger fines than $100.

“We should make it hurt when they break the rules,” Ronald Mitchell said.

Gills Creek District representative Lorie Smith agreed that tighter regulations are necessary for short-term rentals in the county. She said most lakefront homeowners would not have purchased property beside a hotel. “That is essentially what we are doing when we have short-term rentals,” she said.

There were some at the Feb. 18 meeting who viewed short-term rentals as a way to bring more tourism to Franklin County. The planning commission’s Union Hall District representative Deborah Crawford said the county needs to find a place for people to stay in the county if they want them to vacation in Franklin County. Websites like AirBnB that are used by most short-term rentals in the county have become a popular way for people to vacation.

Crawford agreed that greater regulations and fines need to be in place to make sure property owners are following the rules, but said that the county needs to find a way for tourists, especially young tourists to visit the area. She said AirBnB is what vacationers are using these days.

Rocky Mount District representative Mike Carter said more work should be done to find out how many short-term rentals are operating in the county. Of the 97 properties that the county knows about, they provide $134,000 in transient tax revenue. He said there are likely several operating in secret that do not pay any taxes to the county.

“It is hard to tell what we are losing in Franklin County,” Carter said.

Board chairman and Snow Creek District representative Leland Mitchell ended the meeting by asking county staff to look into hiring a consulting firm to look into the issue of short-term rentals in the county. The firm will look into exactly how many short-term rentals are operating in the county as well as ways to better regulate them.

Leland Mitchell said the county plans to look into the issue further at later meetings.

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