By Carol Vaughn —
Two applications for special use permits to operate homestays, or short-term rentals, in Onancock drew criticism during public hearings at Monday’s town council meeting.
The properties for which permits were applied are 9 Market Street and 6 King Street.
The Onancock Town Council after the hearings and discussion voted 3-1 to approve both permits, with council member Joy Marino voting against the motions and council member Thelma Gillespie abstaining.
Additionally, council members agreed a moratorium will be placed on future applications until the planning commission reviews the homestay issue.
Mayor Fletcher Fosque read a letter from adjacent property owners Sharon and John Snead opposing using 9 Market Street as a homestay, citing concerns about noise at night and adverse effect on property values.
“Use of residential property for commercial purpose seems strange, particularly in a historic district,” they wrote.
Another nearby property owner, Kathy Boyd, spoke opposing the application. She recommended the town impose a moratorium on homestays, “so that the planning board and the council could consider what’s going on with homestays. Clearly, it’s an issue that other municipalities and towns have had.”
Boyd said she and her husband are concerned about the density — having two homestays “right in our little neighborhood.”
“We are not opposed to homestays but we think that they should be considered,” she said, calling for the town to “consider it in a broader plan.”
Sarah Nock, another nearby property owner, also called for a moratorium and for the planning commission to address homestays in a broader context, noting the two properties, although the addresses are on different streets, “are actually next to each other.”
Bob Spoth, another nearby property owner, also called for a moratorium, saying the town “needs to develop an urban planning scheme.”
“It’s an investment property at that point and that’s a commercial use,” said King Street resident John Simpkins.
Mixing properties owned by full-time residents with investment properties creates a more volatile real estate market, he said.
Lisa Cuba, the owner of 9 Market Street, said she submitted the application according to the town’s requirements and will be living 10 minutes away.
“We will manage it….We hope it actually supports the town by allowing people to visit town and explore the town and get comfortable in the town,” she said.
Council member Maphis Oswald said she understands the concerns but said the two applications meet current requirements.
She agreed the planning commission should consider the broader issue.
“There is a lot of investment going on right now…to bring tourists and tourism to town. If you are going to spend all that time, effort, and money, where are they going to go?” Oswald said, noting homestays are a good option for people traveling with pets or children.
Onancock, with no beach, is not likely to attract rowdy visitors, she said.
The residence at 6 King Street has been used as a homestay since before the town required a special use permit, according to Town Manager Matt Spuck. The person who wants to buy the house applied for a permit to continue the use.
Jeff Vernimb, of 14 King Street, during a hearing about the application, encouraged a moratorium on homestays.
“There’s lot of people looking to make investments and I think this could get a little tricky,” he said.
He said he heard a prospective owner of another property on King Street is contemplating using the property as a homestay.
“We love the town. Unfortunately, we can’t live here full time right now; it’s not feasible, but we certainly plan on spending as much time here as possible. We’d love my boys to be exposed to the community here. I would like to be part of the community,” said Karl Smith, of Richmond. the applicant.
Smith said he and his wife hope to retire to Onancock eventually.
“I love the town for what it is. I don’t want it to become a bustling tourist hub and be degraded in the ways that people are concerned about,” he said.
“This is a really, really large issue,” said resident Janet Fosque, adding she would not speak against either of the applicants. Still, she said officials should consider options for putting parameters on permits.
“I think your main obligation isn’t to two people in this room tonight. It’s to the people who elected you who live here in this town,” she said.
Council members discussed the fact that the town code does not address applications for permits for homestays submitted by prospective owners.
Spuck said he “would absolutely endorse a moratorium” after the current applications. He said the planning commission has the issue of homestays as its only item on the agenda for its next meeting July 20.
Still, he said the two applicants complied with current requirements.
The town currently has nine approved special use permits for homestays out of 750 residences, Spuck said.
“I think that having the planning commission being thoughtful enough and forward-thinking enough to take on this conversation now, when we only have nine, is perfectly appropriate and I don’t think it changes the character of our community,” he said.
Spuck recommended approval of the two applications, which if approved would bring the total approved permits for homestays to 11.
He said he has no pending applications for homestays.
Mayor Fletcher Fosque said he favors a moratorium and said comments of neighbors should be considered when deciding whether to approve the two permits. He noted the council turned down a similar application for an Ames Street property because two neighbors complained.
“There’s some people that don’t want to live next to an Airbnb. That’s their right,” he said.
Council member Bob Bloxom noted the current ordinance requiring a special use permit has been in effect for two years.
Bloxom endorsed approving the two permits but having the planning commission look at the broader issue.
“I don’t believe we have an issue at this point. We’ve had Airbnbs or VRBOs in this town for many years before we had an ordinance. We’ve had the ordinance on the books for two years. We certainly didn’t have a whole lot of input from the public when we were discussing that ordinance and, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve had zero complaints over the course of many years,” he said.
Bloxom said people who rent homestays in Onancock “are actually the type of people we want to attract to the town” — typically older people who spend money in the town’s art galleries and restaurants.
Still, council member Joy Marino said the council recently denied a similar application on Ames Street because neighbors opposed it.
“This is one of those issues that is an opinion and that’s why we listen to your opinions,” she said, adding she favors a moratorium.
Oswald said Onancock is known for its friendliness.
“I understand the fears….Don’t be afraid to embrace something that I think has a place in this town,” she said, noting the current ordinance includes the provision that the permit will be revoked if complaints are lodged.
“There are safety nets in place,” she said.
Council member Ray Burger said a study should be done before a moratorium is imposed.
Town Elections Will Be in November
A change to Onancock’s town code moved elections for council members and mayor to the first Tuesday in November, after the General Assembly passed legislation moving local elections in Virginia from May to November. Because of the change, current council members and the mayor will serve an additional six months this term.
Onancock Main Street, a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization, now has a website, https://www.experienceonancock.org/
In a presentation to the Onancock Town Council, OMS Board of Directors President Janet Fosque called it “the most comprehensive tourism site that Onancock has ever had.”
The new town brand also is complete and OMS will host a launch event for the brand Friday, July 9.