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Little Rock homeowners have been renting out their spaces through Airbnb and similar sites for years, but agencies that oversee their zoning are still contemplating how to regulate them.

Over the past year the Little Rock Planning and Development Department and the Capitol Zoning District Commission have addressed city residential properties that become short-term rentals through online platforms on a case-by-case basis. But two rezoning requests set to go before the Little Rock Board of Directors on Wednesday could spur discussion toward how the city will approach the issue in the future.

The owners, whose properties are located on Crystal Cove in the Hillcrest neighborhood, seek to rent accessory structures to their homes on the online platform Airbnb, which has become a popular alternative to staying in a hotel or motel for travelers. Other short-term rental platforms include Vacation Rentals By Owner and HomeAway.

Recent numbers show Airbnb use has been on the rise in Arkansas. About 167,900 guests used the service in the state in 2018 -- more than double the number of guests in 2017, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in January.

Little Rock Planning Director Jamie Collins said Wednesday that his department began paying more attention to the activity last year, in conjunction with the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. Airbnb collects and remits a 4%lodging tax that funds the city's marketing arm on behalf of hosts.

If someone is renting a room within a home, the city treats it like a bed and breakfast, meaning the owner is required to apply for a conditional use permit. If someone is renting an entire residence or an accessory structure, the owner is required to request that the property be rezoned, which requires a recommendation from the Planning Commission and approval by the Board of Directors.

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The city requires that short-term rentals that aren't bed and breakfasts be zoned as planned commercial districts. According to documents, the planning staff has denied such zoning requests, taking a "conservative view on introducing uses that are more commercial in character, such as short-term rental, into a predominantly residential neighborhood."

The use of homestay platforms has outpaced officials' ability to ensure that everyone is following zoning ordinances. The city's approach in regulating that kind of short-term rental activity is complaint-driven, Collins said. It's the same for the Capitol Zoning District Commission, a state agency charged with protecting the historical and architectural features of the neighborhoods near the state Capitol and Governor's Mansion that acts as a special planning commission, District Executive Director Boyd Maher said Wednesday.

HOSTS AT HEARINGS

Three Airbnb hosts have come before the Little Rock Planning Commission in the past year because of complaints, Collins said. Those included vehicles continually parked outside and people frequently coming and going.

In March, the Planning Commission denied commercial district zoning to a woman who sought to list a Ringo Street home in which she didn't live, near Philander Smith College. Planning staff members recommended denial, and the commission ultimately did not grant her request.

An objector said he was concerned about the amount of traffic at the site and people going in and out at all hours, with one objector saying the owner was not operating an Airbnb but was operating a "whorehouse."

Two people who lived near the home spoke in support, saying they hadn't observed any problems.

In August, the Planning Commission recommended that the city board approve commercial district zoning for the two properties in Hillcrest, despite recommendations from the planning department's staff to deny both applications.

In both cases, the department said it was concerned about the impact of the transient and inconsistent nature of short-term rentals in residential areas.

The owners of a garage apartment on Crystal Court said they were trying to come into compliance after renting out the accessory dwelling for about a year. They told the commission they had spoken to most of their neighbors and that many were unaware that the unit was being rented on a short-term basis.

Owners of another residence with a backyard cottage on Crystal Court told the planning commission they host guests ranging from visitors to business travelers to people who are in town for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

"I think in general Little Rock obviously has to figure out how to deal with this new phenomenon of short-term rentals," one of the owners, Mark Baillie, told the commission.

He also mentioned the approach the city of Portland, Ore., has taken, which draws the definition of commercial development from the number of rooms being rented.

Ruth Bell of the League of Women Voters spoke in opposition to all three zoning requests, since the city does not know the exact number of short-term rentals and the density of short-term rentals in a neighborhood and their effects on the area are unknown.

Planning Commissioner Robby Vogel said he appreciated that owners of the properties on Crystal Court made an effort to be in compliance with the city's zoning ordinances, though he hoped the commission's approval would catalyze further discussion on what the proper zoning for that kind of short-term rental should be.

"I think having an official designation for them would be my preferred route," Vogel said.

Planning Commissioner Craig Berry said the city's ordinances need to be updated to keep up with the times, but in a way that would ensure that input was taken into account.

"That's becoming a common thing across other cities, and I think we're going to have to go ahead and update our regulations," Berry said. "Little Rock doesn't look very attractive for people to come visit if you don't have Airbnb."

Collins said the city is considering working with a third-party company, such as Host Compliance, to identify all the properties listed on Airbnb and other platforms. That would allow the department to issue a notice to comply to all properties being used this way.

Airbnb's website doesn't show a property's address until a reservation is made. Based on numbers provided by Host Compliance, there are about 350 of such properties in Little Rock, subdivision and zoning manager Dana Carney said.

COMPLAINTS ARISE

The Capitol District Zoning Commission first proposed rules governing short-term rentals last year, prompted by complaints from residents in the district who fell into four camps.

One was owners of traditional bed-and-breakfast houses, who complained people offering short-term rentals using Airbnb and similar companies didn't obtain the permits and approvals their businesses required.

Other complaints came from people who operated businesses in their homes, such as accountants or Web designers, who also said people operating their homes as short-term rentals didn't have to obtain the business license and zoning permits they did.

Other residents expressed concern that unregulated short-term accommodations could take the district back to the bad old days when Victorian-era houses were cut up into a dozen or more substandard units.

Others said allowing short-term rentals threatened the residential character of the district the commission was charged with preserving.

One homeowner who wrote to the commission said she was happy with her Governor's Mansion-area home until a neighbor began short-term rentals. She said 48 different groups had stayed next door to her home, based on online reviews.

"If I wanted to live in an area with this level of foot traffic, I would've purchased a home near the River Market," she said. "I purchased a home in a residential area because I want to live in a residential area."

Some criticized any regulation and said short-term rentals brought people and money into the district. One homeowner wrote to the commission and pointed to Savannah and Charleston as "vibrant southern historic districts" that have thrived with short-term rentals.

"The historic center of Charleston has over 900 Airbnb offerings and the smaller historic center of Savannah has over 300," she wrote. "They are found all throughout these historic neighborhoods; houses, apartments bedrooms ... bringing additional visitors and hotel tax revenue to the cities. They are certainly not restricted to the commercial areas of these towns."

The commission ultimately voted against adopting regulations last month. The proposed rules would have left the regulation of short-term rentals largely to staff.

"Our proposal said if you live there and you're not letting out more than five rooms, we'll treat it the same as a home-based business, the same as if you're practicing accounting or Web design out of your home office and if you didn't live there, that would be a conditional use and the commission would review," Maher said.

Maher said the commission wanted to continue evaluating short-term rental proposals on a case-by-case basis.

"The rule that we drafted would have allowed staff to approve Airbnb and other short-term rentals in an owner-occupied property," he said. "But they still weren't comfortable with that. They wanted to continue reviewing them case by case."

Under existing rules, the staff has tried to avoid being heavy-handed about enforcement and acts only if it receives complaints or if someone known to be operating a short-term rental approaches the staff on another matter, he said.

CONCERNS VOICED

At the Little Rock Board of Directors agenda meeting last week, city directors indicated they are paying attention to the growing prevalence of online short-term rental platforms and expressed concerns.

"It strikes me this is an area where the potential for an unexpected and unanticipated change in neighborhood activity could occur," said at-large City Director Gene Fortson, who is also a member of the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, a former member of the same commission, said she shared Fortson's concerns and said Wednesday's decision could set a precedent.

"I don't think I'd want an Airbnb next to my house necessarily," she said. "I would like for us to make some sort of a determination. When is enough, enough?"

Little Rock isn't the only city dealing with how to regulate short-term rentals arranged by Airbnb and similar sites.

The New Orleans City Council in August banned the short-term rentals of whole houses not occupied by owners and in most of the well-known French Quarter and Garden District, The Associated Press reported.

In Fayetteville, the City Council has given planning staff the go-ahead to explore ways to regulate short-term rentals, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in July. Other cities in Northwest Arkansas, including Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville, don't have short-term rental specific regulations.

A Section on 09/30/2019

CORRECTION: The Little Rock Board of Directors will meet on Wednesday this week so that city directors may observe National Night Out Tuesday evening. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the day that the board will meet.

Print Headline: Little Rock board to decide on Airbnb rezonings

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