Sussex County officials have laid down a gauntlet, and it could have far-reaching implications for county residents who offer lodging through the popular Airbnb app.
Dozens of homeowners in the Cape Region offer Airbnb lodgings.
At its Oct. 16 meeting, the county's board of adjustment denied a special-use permit to operate a bed and breakfast for Barbara McClay, who lives on Doe Run in the 175-lot Woods on Herring Creek subdivision off Camp Arrowhead Road near Lewes. For about a year, McClay had been renting a room in her house through Airbnb, a total, she said, of 20 rentals. Her husband recently passed away, and she said she was seeking additional income.
She said she has a 3,800-square-foot home with enough parking for about 12 cars.
Assistant county attorney Jamie Sharp said under county code, McClay’s home is considered a tourist home or bed and breakfast, a permitted use in AR-1, agricultural-residential, zoning with a special-use exception granted by the board of adjustment.
Sharp said he could not comment whether the decision sets a precedent because board decisions are not legally formalized until they are approved in writing by the board. That process usually takes 45 to 60 days following the meeting.
The board unanimously agreed with testimony from neighbors that McClay’s use of her home for short-term rentals would negatively affect surrounding properties, which is the main criteria the board uses to make its decisions on applications.
They agreed with residents that allowing a bed and breakfast in the community would set a precedent for more applications, impact property values and put a strain on the community's amenities.
“This does set a precedent for the future and could have substantial adverse affects,” said board member John Mills.
Gary Carr, who has lived in the community for more than 13 years, echoed the testimony of several neighbors. “This would be opening the door to other applications in our community with a real loss of value and loss of control,” he said. “We want to control our own destiny. We think we can do a better job answering this type of of issue than to ask you folks to come with up with an answer we will all feel uncomfortable with.”
Two of McClay's neighbors wrote letters of support.
Other residents testified that covenants prohibit the operation of a business in the community.
McClay said that covenants do not specifically state that homes cannot be rented. In fact, there are at least two homes in the community that are rented, but under long-term leases.
“Covenants are a different standard than we have, and we can't rule on those,” Sharp said.
“This helps the economy. I'm not looking to destroy the neighborhood. I would never bring in anyone who would ruin my home,” she said. “It's been a wonderful experience with wonderful people. I have to approve my guests before they can come.”
Mills asked McClay if she contacted any government officials to check for regulations pertaining to renting a room in her house.
She said she did not.
Short-term rentals are popular option
Started in 2008, Airbnb now has 3 million listings in 191 countries. Airbnb provides listings on its website and charges a 6-to-12 percent fee to guests and a 3-to-5 percent fee to hosts. The costs of lodging and restrictions are determined by hosts.
Airbnb has grown to include much more than lodging with other services available, such as sightseeing, entertainment, food, nightlife, shopping, parks and recreation, classes and workshops, restaurants and other travel-experience options.
The company has faced backlash as some cities have passed laws regulating short-term rentals. In addition, the company has come under fire from hotels and traditional bed-and-breakfast owners who claim the playing field is not level when it comes to meeting building codes, fire and safety standards, and local zoning ordinances.