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Council Corner: City considers the sharing economy

Even people who love Ashland leave it once in a while.

Think back to your last trip away. Where did you stay? A hotel with room service and wake-up calls? Or maybe (especially if you’re younger and a little adventurous) you rented an extra bedroom you found on Airbnb or a similar website?

On Tuesday, the Ashland City Council will consider legalizing that last option. If approved, residents in designated city neighborhoods who obtain a conditional use permit would be allowed to rent one or two bedrooms to travelers visiting or passing through town.

The proposal challenges a deep-rooted, traditional view of neighborhoods. For the most part, we have kept single-family neighborhoods free from business activity. As a community, are we ready to jump into the sharing economy?

In 1970, my parents moved into a home on a cul-de-sac. Our house was surrounded by a labyrinth of streets including many more cul-de-sacs, a maze of homogeneous suburban development a mile square. Forget walking. The nearest store was separated from our neighborhood by intimidating four-lane arterials. It was development predicated on car travel and spurred by the notion that good planning segregates differing uses.

Many of our ideas about great neighborhoods have shifted since then. We no longer promote cul-de-sacs, returning instead to the traditional grid pattern still prevalent in our historic areas. Our most popular neighborhoods are ones where residents can walk or bike to shopping or work. Several years ago Ashland began permitting home-based businesses, allowing some workers to fully integrate home and employment in a single-family residential neighborhood.

The traveler’s accommodation proposal would legitimize a new type of home-based business in R-1 neighborhoods within 200 feet of a major street, and in all historic districts. A homeowner (no renters) residing in his/her primary residence would be allowed to rent as many as two bedrooms to a single party traveling in one car. No kitchen facilities and/or prepared food could be provided. The homeowner must be present, obtain a conditional use permit and pay a city tax on overnight stays.

As we consider the proposal, the council and the community should ask these questions:

Would the introduction of traveler’s accommodations undermine the character of our neighborhoods?

Proponents argue that the impact of a paid guest on neighbors is no different than having your cousins spend the night. Many state that the income they derive from renting a spare bedroom allows them to keep their homes. But critics believe that the systematic influx of strangers undermines neighborhood cohesion and upends a reasonable expectation that neighbors should know the folks asleep next door. Some wonder if short term visitors will take rooms that otherwise would be occupied by long term residents.

Do our visitors want home-based options?

Airbnb claims that 95 percent of users give their hosts a 4.5-5 star rating. That data is likely skewed, but it does appear that users are happy. Since these accommodations are often much less expensive than conventional lodging, guests no doubt consider the impact on their pocketbooks a plus when assessing the quality of the experience. The tremendous growth of Airbnb in other communities suggests that the model could easily gain a following here.

Is it possible to construct an ordinance that permits home based accommodations without giving them an unfair competitive advantage?

Traditionally, the sharing economy has tried to bypass government regulation and taxes. Other proprietors, especially bed-and-breakfast operators, are rightfully requesting a “level playing field” that allows all vendors to compete fairly for visitors. The requirement for a conditional use permit, as well as collection of taxes, would be a step in that direction.

The proposal for tourist rentals definitely pushes the R-1 envelope. But too far — or just right? Is Ashland ready to cross the Airbnb frontier? Email your comments to the council, or come to our meeting to join the conversation.

Pam Marsh is a member of the Ashland City Council.