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Zoning officials estimate that there are approximately 1,500 properties currently operating as short-term lodging in Fairfax County.

Residential property owners who want to rent out their homes must limit visitors to six adults for terms of no longer than 60 days under new zoning rules adopted by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on July 31.

Such arrangements have become increasingly common with the rise of services like Airbnb and FlipKey that connect travelers to short-term lodging. Department of Planning and Zoning staff estimate that there are approximately 1,500 properties currently operating as short-term lodging in the county.

The Board of Supervisors voted 7-3 to officially permit and regulate short-term rentals for single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, mobile homes, and apartments.

“The Board of Supervisors aimed to strike the right balance between allowing short-term rentals to operate in Fairfax County under certain circumstances, while protecting the character and quiet enjoyment of residential neighborhoods in Fairfax County,” Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “I believe reasonable regulations…offer a good compromise for hosts and nearby neighbors alike.”

In addition to limiting the number of people allowed to stay in a residential property used for short-term lodging and how long they are allowed to stay in one calendar year, Fairfax County now requires that owners are permanent residents of the property they are renting out, and they must pay a $200 fee for a two-year zoning permit in order to operate a short-term rental.

Like all other zoning fees, the $200 permit fee will go to the county’s general funds, according to Fairfax County Deputy Zoning Administrator Donna Pesto.

Under the new regulations, operators must designate at least one available parking space for lodgers, and they can only sign one contract per night, meaning they cannot rent out the same property to multiple groups at the same time.

Operators must also identify an additional authorized agent who will be available to address any problems that arise when their property is being rented.

Events and other commercial uses are prohibited from short-term rentals.

“If you introduce that level of commercial activity into a neighborhood, it could cause a pretty substantial change in the character of that neighborhood,” Pesto said. “If suddenly a house becomes a wedding venue and you’ve got cars there every weekend, that’s definitely a different level that we did not think was supported in a residential area. We didn’t feel like that’s something that would be appropriate.”

As Bulova acknowledged in a county press release announcing the new regulations, the process of developing rules for short-term rentals was “not an easy one,” necessitating about 18 months of staff research and review as well as discussions with both county officials and the general public.

Prior to the Board of Supervisors’ vote, Fairfax County only permitted transient occupancy, meaning rentals for 30 days or fewer, for hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments, but the increasing popularity of Airbnb and other companies that facilitate short-term rentals suggested a change to the county’s zoning ordinance might be needed eventually.

The opportunity for change arose when the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation giving localities the authority to regulate short-term property rentals through their land use and zoning powers.

Approved by Gov. Ralph Northam on Mar. 24, 2017 with an effective date of July 1 of that year, S.B. 1578 gave local jurisdictions the ability to require the registration of short-term rental operators and to impose penalties of up to $500 for violations of any adopted registry ordinance.

In response to the new law, which was enacted as Virginia Code Section 15.2-983, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors directed staff to establish a work group that would analyze the short-term rental of property in the county and recommend possible changes to the county code and zoning ordinance.

County staff issued a proposed zoning ordinance amendment to the board on Mar. 20 with a planning commission public hearing initially scheduled for May 3, though it was deferred multiple times until the commission finally made a decision on June 21.

A public hearing in front of the Board of Supervisors was first scheduled for June 19 and then moved back to July 10 with a decision deferred to July 31.

Along with the public hearings, the county solicited community input with an online survey that received more than 7,000 responses, Department of Planning and Zoning open houses, and four community meetings held at the Reston, McLean, and Mount Vernon Community Centers as well as the Fairfax County Government Center.

Pesto says her staff met with stakeholders, including citizens’ associations, hotel industry members, and Airbnb. They also looked at regulations already adopted by other jurisdictions in Virginia, as well as other places in the U.S. and around the world to develop the proposed ordinance.

The predominant concern that came up during the planning and zoning department’s community input gathering efforts, which started in June 2017, was opposition from residents who worried that allowing short-term rentals would disrupt their neighborhoods by bringing a commercial element to areas that are intended to be residential.

Some of the county’s supervisors echoed those concerns during their July 31 meeting with Supervisors Linda Smyth, John C. Cook and Pat Herrity voting against the zoning amendment. *

In addition to giving property owners the ability to make some money from renting their homes while they are on vacation or otherwise absent, short-term rentals carry financial benefits for Fairfax County.

Based on the 1,500 active listings currently estimated for the county, Fairfax County projects that short-term lodging will generate approximately $428,268 in tax revenue annually from the transient occupancy taxes that operators are required to pay.

About half of that amount would be incorporated into the county’s budget, while the remainder will be used to support tourism and regional transportation as required by state law.

The new zoning regulations for short-term rentals will take effect on Oct. 1, though county staff has been directed to report to the board and planning commission 18 months later with updates and any needed amendments.

Fairfax County’s approval of short-term rentals sets the stage for other jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to develop their own rules.

The Town of Herndon’s planning commission held a public hearing on Monday regarding a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would permit and establish limits on short-term rentals.

Like Fairfax County, Herndon’s staff has recommended limiting guests to six adults and operators to a maximum of 90 nights per calendar year when they can rent out their entire dwelling unit.

Fairfax County staff originally proposed a 90-day limit, but the board of supervisors reduced that to 60 days.

“We hope that we’ve struck a balance,” Pesto said. “…Hopefully, it will be a boost to tourism and other things. It allows people to potentially make some extra money by renting out their rooms, and we hope that overall, it offers an opportunity but continues to maintain the residential character of all of these houses.”

*CORRECTION

A previous version of this article erroneously claimed that Supervisor Dan Storck voted against the zoning amendment. The Fairfax County Times regrets the error. Supervisor John C. Cook of  Braddock District was in fact the third dissenting vote, not Storck. 

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