By Edythe Kelleher, Executive Director, Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation (SFDC)

Compromise may be dead at the Federal level, but Fairfax County officials are attempting to bring “balance” to new regulations governing short term rentals (STR), such as Airbnb and Homeaway.

At a community meeting the evening of July 26, the Department of Planning and Zoning presented information about the county’s Zoning Ordinance Modernization project, or zMod. Zoning Administrator Leslie Johnson stated that the county’s current Zoning Ordinance was adopted in 1978 and has been amended 467 times since. Every year, the Board of Supervisors assigns a “Priority One” list of about a dozen issues for the staff to address. As new issues arise, they are placed on a “Priority Two” list which is many pages long, and wait to see if they are urgent enough to move to Priority One.

Zoning Ordinance provisions govern land use county-wide, which sometimes makes it challenging to address situations that may arise in individual neighborhoods. Ordinance language can be difficult for non-attorneys to understand and apply. One of the goals of zMod is to replace such language with plain English, and to make more use of charts and graphics.

While the larger effort is ongoing, the staff is also working on the Priority One list. This contains some large and important items such as restaurant definitions, minor modifications to zoning approvals, the sign ordinance, required rear yards and short term rentals (STR). 2017 Virginia General Assembly legislation (SB 1578) gave localities the responsibility of regulating STRs

At the meeting, I overheard conversations among county residents who are already operating STRs, although they are currently not legal. But these folks were silent during the public Q-and-A period, which was dominated by residents who are entirely opposed to STRs. Concerns include traffic and parking, strangers in neighborhoods, and commercialization of residential areas. It was suggested that homes used as STRs be re-assessed higher for property tax purposes.

Staff hopes to craft a compromise that recognizes that the “sharing economy” is a reality, but minimizes impacts to neighbors and the traditional tourism industry. They cited ordinances already adopted in Blacksburg, Charlottesville and Arlington. In my opinion, their draft STR ordinance will restrict the number of rooms and/or the number of nights that a residence may be rented. STRs will be required to register, and pay fees and occupancy taxes. Registration will grant the county enforcement authority, as staff would otherwise not be able to enter a residence on a civil matter.

Each proposed Zoning Ordinance Amendment will have public hearings before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors after more community outreach.

For more information about STRs and to take the online survey (until August 31), visit:  http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/short-term-rentals.htm

For zMod information, visit:  http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/zmod/

For information on proposed Zoning Ordinance Amendments, visit:  http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpz/zoningordinance/proposed/