Bellevue looks to regulate Airbnbs

The popularity of the Airbnb home sharing platform is giving officials across the country fits, as traditional zoning codes struggle to adapt to the new property use, and citizens argue both for and against additional regulation.

Bellevue is jumping into the fray after residents of Meade Avenue continue complaints about parking congestion and noise as the result of an Airbnb property on their street.

The Airbnb company started originally as a way of providing home owners with a platform to rent out all or parts of their homes to travelers who preferred a home setting rather than a hotel or motel. Amy and Joel Haldeman of North Sprague Avenue in Bellevue do just that, renting out their home only while the family is on vacation. Another Airbnb property in Ben Avon features use of a second floor apartment, while the owners reside on the first floor of the home.

The problems for small towns arise when the owner is not the primary resident of the property, and, in fact, turns a residential property into a commercial investment.

That is exactly what happened on Meade Avenue, where a 2.5 story home is used strictly for short-term rentals, and is advertised on the Airbnb site as accommodating up to 14 people in a four-bedroom house. The owner, Christopher Kilmurry, purchased the property as a single-family home in 2008, and advertises its rental through Airbnb for up to $425 per night, with a two-night minimum stay. In addition, the renter pays a “service fee” of $82, and “occupancy taxes” of $98.

Neighbors told Bellevue Council at its pre-council meeting on Tuesday that with no off-street parking at the property, the street is packed with vehicles every weekend, making it impossible for neighbors to find spaces. They also complained of noises lasting late into the night, and a general lack of oversight of the property because the owner lives out of town.

The Citizen contacted Kilmurry for comment on this story. He responded that he would be in town in June and would be available for a face-to-face meeting at that time.

Traditional zoning codes -- even those enacted in recent years, such as the Tri-Boroughs Zoning Code that covers Avalon, Bellevue and Ben Avon -- are proving inadequate to address the growing occurrence of Airbnbs. For instance, a traditional bed-and-breakfast is described as being owner-occupied. More closely approaching the reality of Airbnbs is the zoning code description of a “boarding house,” which notes use by transient renters. Both of these property uses, under Bellevue’s current zoning law, are permitted only in certain zoning districts, require special permission from the zoning hearing board in other districts, and require off-street parking.

Citizens across the country are objecting to Airbnbs that are flying under the zoning radar, because they are being promoted through a platform that describes the experience as “home-sharing” or “hosting,”with advocates likening the use to having a roommate. Bellevue Council member Tom Fodi pointed out that he could host dozens of non-paying guests at his home over a weekend, and Bellevue Borough would have no say about parking, and could not impose additional regulations on his home.

The hotel industry, meanwhile, is pointing to the commercial investment Airbnbs, and arguing that they essentially provide the same service as a hotel or motel without having to meet safety and zoning regulations or pay taxes on the money they make.

Bellevue Council is considering an ordinance that would regulate Airbnbs, requiring owners to register the properties annually, and giving the borough the right to deny a permit to any property that creates problems with noise, parking, etc.The ordinance also would require fire and safety inspections, and handicapped accessibility.

The proposed ordinance drafted by solicitor Matt Racunas, however, also attempts to impose requirements regarding off-street parking, something that is regulated by the existing zoning code. Avalon tried a similar end run on the zoning code a couple years ago in regards to an off-street parking situation, and found that the zoning code is the prevailing law.

Council member Linda Woshner said that there were many issues to consider, including whether the borough’s contract for single family homes should be providing garbage collection, and whether the owners were paying business privilege taxes as is required of traditional landlords.

Fodi said that he would agree with an ordinance that required the properties to be owner-occupied, but did not want to impose off-street parking requirements.

The North Sprague Airbnb host, Amy Haldeman, asked council to also consider the positive contributions of the property use. Her neighbors, she joked, often found the rental period to be less intrusive than when she and her husband are in residence with their three children. She added that her house has been used in a documentary, and she received a request from a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates to rent the house for six months. That request was denied, she said.

The ordinance being considered by Bellevue Council will remain just that, under consideration, as officials attempt to flesh out some of the questions and concerns. Mayor Paul Cusick, meanwhile, suggested that Bellevue address the problems on Meade Avenue by creating a permit parking area, with a limited number of permits available per property.