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Boyle’s Airbnb problem won’t be easy to fix

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

Boyle County leaders have a tricky task ahead of them in modernizing local planning and zoning regulations. There may not be a better example of the complexities waiting to be addressed than the dozens of short-term rental properties currently operating in the county.

Websites like Airbnb and VRBO have led to a revolution in how people travel by allowing anyone to rent out their property — or even just a room in their house — for a night to whoever wants it for the night.

The number of property owners using the new model for overnight accommodations to make some extra money has exploded in just the past few years. There are more and more people building entire businesses and careers managing short-term rentals, too.

Short-term rentals expand the market for travelers and tourists, meaning prices stay competitive and friendly. They can also be good for property values, because they provide a new profit opportunity for some homes and living spaces that might otherwise sit dormant and deteriorate. And they can benefit local businesses, who sell things to travelers who stop in the area.

Those are the potential positives, but short-term rentals are certainly not free of drawbacks. For one thing, a short-term rental property is clearly a business, and most businesses aren’t allowed to open or operate in residential areas. There’s a good reason for that.

People looking for a reason to hate government regulations love to pick on planning commissions because they think they’re an obvious example of government telling private citizens what they can do with their own property. In reality, zoning regulations don’t exist to tell you what to do; they exist to protect you — and everyone else — from others making decisions that could hurt your property.

Businesses aren’t prohibited in residential neighborhoods because the government has anything against business; they’re prohibited because the other people living there have a right not to have their neighborhood turned upside-down.

According to P&Z Director Steve Hunter and a local resident who commented during a recent “Pulse of the People” public forum, there are at least two neighborhoods in Boyle County where short-term rentals are turning things at least sideways, if not all the way upside-down yet. There are other areas where the number of rental properties is so high it seems only a matter of time until one too many rowdy guests creates another cluster of upset neighbors.

Many rental owners are paying their dues to local government and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. And many of their guests are unobtrusive — they come to Boyle County, spend their money at local businesses, then move on. But their properties are still being operated as businesses in residential spaces.

There ought to be a way to tap into the positives of short-term rentals while eliminating or at least minimizing the negatives. The problem is no such solution exists today, because Boyle County doesn’t have an appropriate zoning classification that would allow short-term rentals to operate legally.

It’s obvious such a classification should be created, hopefully during “phase two” of the P&Z Commission’s overhaul of its zoning ordinance. But what kind of limitations/regulations should be put on short-term rental properties and where the new zoning should be used are two questions yet to be answered. We won’t pretend to know the answers to either one.