Zionsville stirs up debate over lodging service Airbnb

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Short-term rental site Airbnb has made national headlines due to lodging regulation battles in major metropolitan cities, but it’s also stirring up debate in relatively tiny Zionsville.

A property owner in Zionsville has been trying to work with the town for the past year to be allowed to advertise space on the popular lodging-sharing platform that connects travelers with people willing to put them up in their homes for a price.

Steven and Tamara Totty have used Airbnb since October 2014 as a way to offer the apartment above their detached garage on Laurel Avenue to out-of-town guests. After a neighbor complained to local officials last summer, the town issued a cease and desist letter.

The Tottys stopped accepting new reservations after receiving notice from the town, but honored existing paid bookings. Since then, they’ve had to deny 16 new requests. In February, Airbnb notified them that their listing was being removed due to inactivity.

Zionsville’s zoning code does not offer guidelines for short-term rentals like Airbnb. The closest regulations are for bed-and-breakfast establishments, but the Tottys do not serve food. Because the Totty’s residence is not currently zoned to allow a bed and breakfast, renting it on Airbnb is seen as a violation of town code.

“Zionsville’s ordinances are antiquated,” said attorney Mike Andreoli, who is representing the Tottys. “These ordinances were adopted 30 to 40 years ago.”

The Tottys are requesting special permission from the Zionsville Board of Zoning Appeals to allow short-term rentals on their property. The board is expected to consider the request when it meets Tuesday night.

Town planning staff have recommended denying the request, but the board is not required to follow the suggestion.

“While the use of short-term rentals for residential purposes in established residential areas may be rising in popularity, the staff must review the request based on the criteria established in the town’s zoning ordinance,” the staff report states.

Andreoli said the approval could provide an official way for other residents renting space on Airbnb to work with the town.

“The other way to do it is for the town to change their ordinance, which is a much more elaborate process,” Andreoli said.

A search on Airbnb on Tuesday morning showed nearly 20 options in Zionsville, with prices ranging from $65 for a private bedroom in a home to $799 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home.

The town has not issued cease and desist letters to other property owners renting on Airbnb, howecer, and the Tottys argue that if the town chooses to regulate the short-term rentals, then it should be a level playing field.

Andreoli said the Tottys believe renting their space on the site provides an opportunity to showcase the community and attract more visitors to local businesses.

“Personally, I don’t see how there’s a negative connected with that,” Andreoli said. “How else do you help your downtown merchants without generating taxpayer dollars to do it?”

The Tottys have gathered about 360 signatures on a petition to support their request, which includes merchants and residents in the downtown Village and surrounding areas.

“Why would we want these tourists and their money to go someplace else? This is a win-win-win situation,” neighbor Chuck Bryson wrote in a letter to the town. “Please do not turn this into a lose-lose-lose for all of us.”

But the town has also received letters opposed to the short-term rental business, arguing against allowing a business in the residential area and citing concerns about safety.

“The residential aspect of the Village is under fire lately given some of the projects being proposed,” wrote Iain and Alison Provan, 20-year residents of the Village. “This is just another example of someone wanting to make a profit off of all of those who have care for and preserved the village over the years.”

Airbnb has been under fire in several cities as local governments try to protect tenants from being pushed out by landlords seeking to capitalize on the short-term business.

The New York State legislature passed a law in late June that is viewed essentially as a ban on Airbnb rentals, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign the measure.

In San Francisco, Airbnb filed a lawsuit against a new rule that holds the company financially responsible for hosts who don’t formally register listings with the city.

The site has also received complaints of discrimination that involve black users earning less than white users and black travelers being denied reservations because of their race.

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