Changes to Albemarle County’s homestay policy are afoot.
At its meeting this week, the county Board of Supervisors decided to pursue staff-recommended zoning ordinance changes, including possibly allowing larger rural property owners the ability to file a special exception request to use a resident manager and changing the 125-foot setback requirement for rural-area homestays.
The county’s ordinance for homestays — short-term rentals of fewer than 30 days — was updated in 2019 after a two-plus-year process.
Both changes will need zoning text amendments with future approval from the board, which county staff said could occur within a year.
“These are based on our experience, meaning board, applicant, community and staff, and what we’ve experienced over the last year in special exceptions, in phone calls [and] the whole process altogether,” said Albemarle’s zoning administrator, Bart Svoboda.
Albemarle’s homestay regulations divide the county into three categories by zoning districts and size: residential district properties, rural area-zoned properties smaller than 5 acres and rural area-zoned properties 5 acres or larger.
Special exceptions currently can be granted for four reasons: to allow more than two guestrooms; the use of an accessory structure if not otherwise allowed; the use of a resident manager; and a reduction in required setbacks. The use of a resident manager is currently not a special exception that larger rural property owners can request.
Svoboda said the 125-foot setback reduction for rural-area properties is by far the most-sought-after special exception — as of July, 42 have been submitted, 29 were approved and 10 are pending.
Instead of 125-foot setbacks, staff would look at making homestay setbacks the same as primary structure setbacks, which is what the county already allows for home occupations. He said county staff would come back to the board with developed standards and landscaping requirements that would be part of the administrative approval.
“That would free up some capacity for both staff and the board on their agenda,” Svoboda said. “It takes us probably 20 to 30 hours, depending on the complexity of the application, to present a homestay by the time it runs through all the review processes, all the people, through our Granicus approval and everything else. It’s a pretty decent chunk of time.”
He said county staff still would consider having the setback special exception available for requests for parcels that are less than the district setback requirements, such as in cases where there’s a historic structure.
The other suggested change would allow owners of large rural-area property to file a special exception request to have a resident manager.
“Those owners would have the ability to ask; it’s not automatic, but they would at least have the ability to ask the board whether or not it would be appropriate,” Svoboda said.
The board also supported scheduling a work session in 2022 to discuss the owner resident requirement to better regulate what is done and where, not who does it, and also to discuss structural and clarity updates to the ordinance overall.
Many supervisors had questions about properties owned by limited liability companies. Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said that if a property is owned by an LLC, even if it is occupied by the same residents all the time, the owner is excluded from even applying for any reason, and asked how that could be changed.
“Our proposal to expand the owner occupancy exception into that 5 acres or more is sort of the quick fix, so we can do it case by case,” Svoboda said. “The longer fix is that work session as we talk about how it affects potentially other portions of the definition of owner throughout the ordinance.”
The board supported extending the use of a third-party service that is helping the county find homestays that are out of compliance for one more year.
A total of 377 properties were found by the service and then contacted. Svoboda said 90% of those identified homestay listings are now in compliance or had no zoning violations found.
“That 10% of compliance gap that’s left, it’s likely to remain for a while,” he said. “It may get smaller, but we have a certain percentage that are going to be new [to having] a homestay as a business so they may be unaware.”
To be compliant, homestay operators need to apply for a zoning clearance, schedule and pass all required inspections, provide neighbors notice with contact information, apply for a business license and pay applicable taxes, among other things.
According to a staff report, since the new regulations went in effect in 2019, 122 zoning clearance applications for homestays have been submitted. Approximately 87% of the homestay applications received are in the rural areas zoning district and 13% are in residential zoning districts.
Approximately 60% of homestay listings in the county offer two or fewer bedrooms, staff said.