Hiccups for short-term rentals

Short-term rentals became a phenomenon in the past decade, as internet-based services like Airbnb allowed people to book rooms in private houses. More recently, vacationers have used similar online tools to find places to camp under the stars.

In Louisa County, the number of indoor short-term rentals is noticeable on Lake Anna. There are also a few scattered locations around the countryside, both indoors and outside.

Amyrose Foll estimates that she hosted up to 30 campers last year on her farm, located between Ferncliff and Shannon Hill on the Goochland County line. Typically she has had one family staying on-site in a given week. She was surprised to receive a notice from a county code enforcement officer on March 19 advising that she needs permission from the Louisa County Board of Supervisors to accept paying guests. 

“There’s a massive difference between having one family camp next to the pigs on the farm on a Friday night and running an actual commercial campground,” Foll said. 

Foll and her husband Derek made $1,500 from campers in 2020, she said. It’s been a significant income source for her small nonprofit, Virginia Free Farm, which gives away much of the food it raises to people with low incomes in the Richmond region. Foll said most of the campers are tourists and often spend money at local restaurants and other businesses.

For now, Foll has pulled her listing from Hip Camp, a short-term camping website, because she doesn’t want to spend $500 on a conditional use permit application, plus the cost of notifying neighbors. She also has no guarantee the supervisors will approve the permit.

Several other Louisa properties were listed on the Hip Camp site this month. Gil Benmoshe, a resident of Cambia Community, which advertises for campers, said county officials have not contacted them about obtaining a permit.

“We hadn’t even considered that it could be a permitting issue,” Benmoshe said. “It’s hard to see why the county would bother with this.”

Robert Gardner, the county’s community development director, said that “for the most part, [illegal camping] hasn’t been a problem.” He said it’s more common for localities to have an issue with people staying somewhere for extended periods in recreational vehicles.

Elsewhere in this part of Virginia, some local governments have implemented rules to control where short-term rentals are permitted. Most of the focus has been on people staying in houses, not in tents.

In Goochland County, a short-term rental can be just a portion of a house; to rent out an entire house requires approval from the supervisors. Orange County requires the property owner to be “present and available” while guests are staying in their home, and the rental has to be accessory to the main residential use. Albemarle County has adopted the term “homestay” to describe Airbnb-type housing.

As for camping, Goochland defines a campground as having two or more campsites, while Augusta County sets the threshold at three. Louisa’s ordinance says simply that if a facility provides camping areas, it’s a campground.

People who rent space in or outside their houses are expected to pay the two percent transient occupancy tax to the Louisa County Commissioner of the Revenue. Stacey Fletcher, the commissioner, said all short-term rental owners are supposed to register with her office. Her staff also checks rental websites occasionally to check listings against the county’s registry. She said there are currently 106 transient occupancy accounts, including hotels, Airbnbs and campgrounds.

Airbnb reported in 2019 that 2,300 people rented space in Louisa County using the service, resulting in $351,000 for property owners. 

Like Louisa, Fluvanna County hasn’t addressed the short-term rental issue yet in its zoning regulations. Planning Director Douglas Miles said rental owners take some risk in providing a service that is not officially sanctioned by local government.

“If there’s an issue with their homeowner’s insurance, the first thing the company’s going to ask is, ‘Did you have county approval?’” Miles said.

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