When some five dozen residents of Bowling Green’s Mitchell Heights subdivision showed up at a Warren County Board of Adjustments meeting in May to protest an Airbnb short-term rental in their neighborhood, they were evidence of a growing trend that local officials are trying to address before it reaches the crisis-like proportions seen in Nashville and other large cities.
It seems that the attraction of using either your primary residence or a second home to bring in rental income has become simply too good to resist for many folks.
Airbnb, the largest of the online lodging marketplace websites, reflects that trend. Launched in 2008, Airbnb now offers listings in nearly 200 countries and is projected to reach more than $8 billion in revenue next year.
“Airbnbs and other companies that do a similar thing are becoming very popular,” said Sherry Murphy, executive director of the Bowling Green Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s almost a fad mentality.”
The fad hasn’t bypassed Bowling Green.
“About two years ago, we only had about 50 Airbnbs in Bowling Green,” said Ben Peterson, executive director of the City-County Planning Commission of Warren County. “Now we’re close to 200.”
Actually, the Airbnb.com website lists 216 rentals in the Bowling Green area, and that doesn’t count those who choose to list their property with VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), Flipkey or other online lodging companies.
“It’s starting to grow here, but it’s not to the point that it’s unmanageable,” Peterson said. “Larger cities have thousands of short-term rentals.”
And almost as many headaches, if Nashville’s experience is an indication.
Short-term rentals are a sour note in the Music City, where established residents have complained about having transient and sometimes disruptive neighbors. The city tried last year to ban from residential neighborhoods vacation rentals whose owners didn’t live in the homes.
That attempt was eventually shot down by the Tennessee state legislature, which cited concerns about property rights, and now Nashville’s Metro Codes Department has two officers dedicated to responding to complaints arising from the hundreds of home rentals in the city.
Hoping to head off a similar situation in Warren County, Peterson has initiated a process that will fine-tune local regulations governing short-term rentals and perhaps avoid more situations like the one in Mitchell Heights.
The existing residents were successful in closing that Airbnb in Mitchell Heights, and one of those who spoke at the Board of Adjustments meeting summed up their reasons for opposing the Conditional Use Permit application that would have made the short-term rental a permanent part of the neighborhood.
“I oppose this because I bought into a single-family neighborhood,” said Richard Grace. “I didn’t want to move into a rental neighborhood.”
Peterson said the planning commission has fielded other complaints from residents opposed to having transient visitors in their backyard, prompting the effort to better define regulations related to short-term rentals of 30 days or less.
A committee made up of city and county officials has worked on regulations that will ultimately need to be approved by the planning commission and by the county fiscal court and all of the county’s municipalities.
“We’re modernizing our regulations to fully account for all short-term rentals,” Peterson said. “We don’t want what amounts to a mini-hotel next door to residences, and we don’t want anything that changes the character of a neighborhood.”
That character-changing impact is most evident when absentee property owners rent an entire home, and the refined regulations will address that.
Peterson said short-term rentals will be allowed by right in commercial zones, but a CUP will be required for all residential and agricultural zones. According to a draft of the regulations, bed-and-breakfast establishments in such zones must be owner occupied and the owner must be present on site during times of occupancy by renters.
The impact of the better-defined regulations could be felt by homeowners wanting to open an Airbnb and by those who are already operating.
“If you have either a bed-and-breakfast or an Airbnb and don’t have a Conditional Use Permit, you may not be in compliance,” Peterson said. “Our goal is not to force compliance but to educate people and help them get in compliance.”
Both Peterson and Murphy said those working on regulating short-term rentals have had to weigh the pros and cons of such establishments.
A draft brochure about the revised regulations mentions that short-term rentals provide extra income for property owners as well as sales tax and lodging tax revenue.
“They (short-term rentals) provide a valuable business, especially during our large events when our hotels are full,” Murphy said. “We want those visitors to stay here in a convenient location, and we want to be as hospitable as possible.
“They serve a great purpose, but sometimes people don’t understand the safety aspect (of running a short-term rental). We really want to protect those in established neighborhoods who have concerns.”
Peterson described the revised regulations as more of a “modernization” than a departure from current laws. He expects the regulations to be considered by the planning commission by the end of the year.