Northampton Supervisors Give Short-Term Rentals a Long-Term Solution

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By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton supervisors voted Tuesday night on two zoning issues that have plagued them for months.

In a unanimous decision, supervisors eliminated “watch houses for shellfish grounds,” aka oyster watch houses, from the land-use table in the county’s zoning ordinance.

Spencer Murray, chairman of the board of supervisors, said, “We didn’t see any need for this to be a use in our zoning any further. It’s not used very much.”

Traditionally, an oyster watch house is a structure built on the water, or in the water on pilings, for watching oyster grounds, safeguarding against poaching.

An oyster watch house is not meant to be used as a dwelling or to generate rental income. But in 2017, Thornton Tayloe, a citizen of the Cheriton area, notified county staff that an oyster watch house near his residence had been converted into a dwelling and was used for overnight stays.

He was primarily concerned about the development’s impact on water quality and noted that several of the surrounding creeks contained condemned shellfish areas.

The property in question, Salt Grove, belongs to local developer Eyre Baldwin.

The county was unable to enforce the intended use of the structure because “watch house” was not defined in the zoning ordinance. “From the perspective of the building code, there is no difference between a watch house and a residence,” stated minutes from a board of supervisors meeting held May 29, 2018.

The next day, the board of supervisors submitted a zoning application to amend the ordinance to allow regulation of the use of watch houses.

Over the next several months, the matter was passed back and forth between the board of supervisors and the planning commission, but a conclusion was not reached.

Instead, in February 2019, supervisors submitted a new zoning application for deleting references to watch houses from the zoning ordinance.

On April 2, the planning commission voted unanimously to recommend the deletion, a decision supervisors cemented with their own unanimous vote April 9.

Murray noted that existing watch houses will not be affected by the decision and will be considered “legally nonconforming.”

He added that new watch houses could be built, but only “if you can get through all those hoops” that may include permission from the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Marine Resource Commission, Army Corps of Engineers, and Northampton County Wetlands Board, plus zoning clearance and a building permit.

After supervisors removed the “watch house” land use from Northampton’s zoning ordinance, they added a new one, “short term rental.”

Short-term rentals are accommodations provided for a period of 30 days or less to guests in exchange for a fee, and they are typically private homes or rooms reserved for rent by tourists and other visitors using apps and websites like Airbnb.

Northampton Commissioner of the Revenue Charlene Gray said there are already 275 short-term rentals operating in the county that are paying transient occupancy taxes.

Hundreds more short term rentals could be operating “under the radar,” supervisors have said, but the exact number is unknown.

Supervisors wanted to bring existing short-term rentals in compliance with the county zoning ordinance. Technically, before “short term rental” was included in the zoning text, it was illegal to operate one.

Supervisor David Fauber favored allowing short-term rentals by right, with no permit required. “I don’t want to go through this every time somebody wants to rent a room out,” he said.

Supervisor Robert Duer disagreed because there’s no way to root out a “bad apple.”

County Attorney Beverly Leatherbury said, “I don’t know what you could do. You’d fall back upon the criminal law.”

Supervisor John Coker said, “Let’s start somewhere.”

The new short-term rental zoning text was adopted in a 4-1 vote, with Duer opposed.

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