‘You just don’t ever know who’s next door:’ Planners, residents debate legalizing short-term rentals

Published 3:50 pm Friday, October 27, 2023

When Dan Milton left the Air Force in June and moved with his wife and two sons back to North Shore Drive where he’d grown up, he found that the secluded neighborhood he remembered had changed.

Six houses down the street from his sits a four-bedroom residence that’s been converted – illegally, according to Isle of Wight County officials – into a whole-house short-term rental.

“The Hawaiian Hideaway,” as its Airbnb listing dubs the home, boasts private beach access, parking for seven vehicles and lodging for up to 15 overnight guests for $572 per night.’

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Milton contends the rental’s presence has “ruined the neighborhood.” Kevin Brown, however, who owns the rental property, alleges Milton to have been the aggressor in several interactions with renters.

Milton says a summer wedding drew hundreds of people to the neighborhood.

Brown acknowledges having hosted what he termed two “very small” weddings, and contends he’s ceased renting it as a wedding venue after being told by county officials that he lacked permits to operate an event center.

“I’m not trying to break the law,” Brown told the Times.

Milton has now joined with a group of his neighbors who are pushing back against a proposed zoning ordinance change that would legalize and regulate short-term rentals.

Isle of Wight County’s Planning Commission, on Oct. 24, voted to advance the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors with their unanimous recommendation that the change be approved.

Smithfield changed its zoning ordinance in 2020 to allow homeowners the option of leasing their residences through services like Airbnb. The county’s ordinance currently allows the rental of up to two bedrooms to two unrelated people in owner-occupied homes, but doesn’t define whole-house short-term rentals as an authorized use, effectively making Airbnb rentals illegal outside the town’s limits.

The proposed ordinance changes would define a short-term rental as a fee-based stay of less than 30 days, and cap the number of overnight guests age 18 and up at two per bedroom. The maximum number of occupants in a rental home at any given time would be capped at twice the maximum number of allowed overnight guests. Only the maximum number of overnight guests would be allowed between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The Planning Commission had discussed an earlier version of the ordinance changes roughly 18 months ago, which at the time had proposed allowing short-term rentals “by right” in rural agricultural and rural residential zoning. The wording would have allowed owners of homes with the specified zoning to operate as short-term rentals without needing approval from the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors.

The version of the ordinance the planners voted on Oct. 24 to send to the supervisors with their unanimous recommendation for approval struck the “by right” language and will instead require a conditional use permit for all short-term rentals regardless of zoning. The commissioners cited the opposition from Milton and two other North Shore Drive residents for making the change.

“It’s not somewhere where we’re accustomed to having new folks coming in every weekend, or every other weekend, and you just don’t ever know who’s next door,” Larry Morris, who lives adjacent to the rental, told the commissioners during the public hearing they held on the ordinance ahead of the vote.

“There isn’t a feeling of safety anymore,” Milton told the commissioners.

Brown, who did not attend the hearing, told the Times by phone on Oct. 27 that he has put renters through a vetting process prior to agreeing to let them stay at the property.

“No one is being harmed,” Brown said. “If anything, it’s harm coming from (Milton) toward these people who’ve done nothing wrong.”

According to County Attorney Bobby Jones, the North Shore Drive rental has already received three notices citing violations of the county’s existing ordinances. Amy Ring, the county’s director of community development, contends the owners of the rental have constructed several structures on the property in violation of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, and has also operated the house as an event center without a permit.

According to Jones, event centers are not permitted in “neighborhood conservation,” the zoning designation for the houses on North Shore Drive, nor does the zoning ordinance specify a process for obtaining an event center permit in neighborhood conservation zoning.

“It’s not a permitted use, period, and there is enforcement action going on as we speak,” Jones said.

The county, however, has been holding off enforcing its current de facto prohibition against short-term rentals until the Board of Supervisors votes to either adopt a process for legalizing them or maintain the ban by rejecting the proposed ordinance changes.

“We have a growing list of these types of uses throughout the county,” Ring said.

Brown, however, contends the county has been “very vague” on its position toward short-term rentals, and has advised him to continue operating until such time as an ordinance is developed.

He contends short-term rentals like his can bring in tax revenue for the county while drawing additional customers to Smithfield’s numerous restaurants.

“It can be a great thing for an area,” Brown said.

Brown acknowledged having erected a gazebo and private hot tub at the rental. He added he’s willing to do what’s necessary to come into compliance with county requirements.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 28 at 10:34 a.m. with comments by Kevin Brown, who owns the rental property on North Shore Drive.