|Homeowner associations for local communities, like Lafayette Village in Annandale, could be negatively affected by a proposed zoning amendment to allow short-term rentals.|
As most of you are aware, Fairfax County is in the process of developing an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance that would reverse the current ban on transient occupancy (less than 30 days) in residential neighborhoods. The amendment would allow short-term rentals (SRTs), also referred to as short-term lodgings, such as those found on Airbnb.
Communities with HOAs have generally been immune to zoning changes by the county due to the contracts HOAs have with their residents. However, since many of these HOA covenants were drafted before the rise of STRs, most of them do not address this issue.
Most of these HOA documents as a whole focus on enabling the community to govern itself in order to provide a stable, residential environment. If STRs existed when most Fairfax County HOA covenants were written, they would probably not be allowed.
However, now that the county is developing a zoning amendment to allow STRs, most HOAs find themselves in a situation where they are being forced to deal with a form of home occupation they otherwise never would have allowed.
Fairfax County has held a number of community meetings on STRs, but the focus of these meetings has been on the actual STR regulations and did not address the situation in which most HOAs currently find themselves.
At meetings I have attended, county staff said that if HOAs want to protect themselves from STRs they need to amend their covenants. However, from a practical perspective, it is difficult and costly for an HOA to amend its covenants. The governing documents for my HOA require two thirds of residents to approve an amendment, and residents I’ve talked to from other HOAs say they have similar requirements.
I’ve also been told that if HOAs do not want STRs in their community they can protect themselves by taking STR operators to court for violating the “no commercial use” section of their covenants.
That is not a realistic alternative for a couple of reasons: It is expensive for HOAs to go to court, and it’s currently not clear from relevant court rulings whether or not STRs are legally classified as a commercial use of residential property. This unanswered legal question places HOAs in an uncertain position when trying to prevent STRs in their neighborhoods.
Also, I’ve discovered that most HOA representatives, as well as residents not in HOAs, think that the current proposed amendment to the Zoning Ordinance would have a number of detrimental effects on their communities and feel that as of yet, Fairfax County has not offered them a reasonable way to protect their neighborhoods.
They think that the Fairfax County Department of Code Compliance would not be able to adequately enforce STR regulations and that this task would end up falling on HOAs. Moreover, some HOA representatives have voiced concerns that HOA dues may need to be increased in order to deal with the additional issues that are associated with STRs, such as changes in the character of the community, impact on common property, parking, trash, noise, and public nuisance issues.
These concerns being brought forth by HOA representatives make me think that Fairfax County needs to do more analysis of this issue before approving any amendment concerning STRs. The county should have ongoing discussions with HOAs and other citizens’ groups in order to enumerate the likely community risks associated with STRs, along with the means and costs envisioned for mitigating these risks.
HOAs have done a tremendous job over the years building strong neighborhoods that have attracted long-term, stable residents. I’m concerned that an amendment to allow STRs in residential areas could be detrimental to established HOAs and other stable neighborhoods, possibly damaging the very foundation that has helped to make Fairfax County a desirable place to live.
Jacobson is a resident of Lafayette Village in Annandale but is not a current member of the HOA board. This piece reflects her personal views and not the HOA’s. She represents the community on the Mason District Council of Community Associations.