Despite Evidence, Misinformed Jeffersontown Committee Unmoved on Airbnb Issue

Planning and Zoning Committee takes no action to allow Short-Term Rentals

On Tuesday, I attended the Planning and Zoning Meeting of the Jeffersontown City Council. The only agenda item was short-term rentals. It was lightly attended, but there were a handful of residents who came prepared to express their opposition to legalizing short-term rentals. This committee has the authority to make changes to the law, but it appears to me no member of the committee is interested in learning FACTS about the issue.

Instead, they listened as Norm Meyer of Plainview rambled on about how wrong it was for WAVE-TV to air this piece, which he said showed Jeffersontown as a backward town. He was right about that. Meyer even mentioned me by name, saying that I was connected to the media (Thanks! I am).

Meyer and his group really don’t want short-term rentals in their neighborhood. He lives in a deed-restricted community, and could get a restriction in the Plainview by-laws, but seems to find it easier to have politicians in J-town attempt to enforce a nebulous law.

The law that the committee, plus Mayor Bill Dieruf and city attorney Schuyler Olt, are relying on to claim that short-term rentals are illegal is dubious, and would likely not stand a court test. They are relying on a list in the Land Development Code of 16 “Permitted Uses” that doesn’t include short-term rentals. This list also doesn’t include rentals of any type, so by that logic no rentals would be allowed.

The definition for the allowable term “Dwelling, Single-Family” is this: “A dwelling designed for and occupied exclusively by one family.” The only mention in the entire code of a time requirement (30 days) is in the definition of a dwelling unit, which is defined as a single room or two or more connected rooms sold or leased as a unit and intended for occupancy for no less than thirty (30) consecutive days or more by one family…”

airbnb_horizontal_lockup_webThe problem with this committee, chaired by Bill Young, is that it is not open to making a change to the law based on common sense. Mayor Dieruf brought up the fact that there are no hotels, and none are coming, to the Gaslight District, and that it would be nice to have a place for visitors to stay in the downtown area. He suggested a new zoning that would allow short-term rentals in a defined geographic space. But that idea didn’t go anywhere with the committee.

In fact, member Tim Hall, the most close-minded of the bunch, said that since the city is not known for tourism, it wasn’t necessary to make short-term rentals available. No one on the committee was interested in the impact that a short-term rental ban might have on tourism, or that when visitors do stay in Jeffersontown they are likely to spend money there.  One made a comment using the logic that since the city would receive no money directly from short-term rentals, they shouldn’t be allowed.

I’m confident that the owners of J-town restaurants and tourist attractions will be unhappy to know that one of their elected officials doesn’t think tourism is important.  In addition to a number of new restaurants, the city has wonderful recreational facilities that rely on visitors, and has athletic facilities that host various competitions for teams from all over the U.S.

The NIMBY crowd has decided this is a big issue, despite no one in J-town experiencing any actual harm as a result of the dozens of Airbnbs that operate in the city, some for as long as four years. Letters received by the city in a complaint about a property in Plainview show that residents experience great anxiety and fear about the possibility that someone they might not know would be spending time in their neighborhood. One said that because of the presence of the property, he no longer allowed his children to play outside.

A popular rumor going around town, perpetuated in a Facebook comment by city attorney Schuyler Olt (and later removed), was that short-term rentals were popular among Meth Lab operators. Yes, that’s really what some people in the city think.

It’s a classic case of government officials refusing to research an issue, then showing up in a public forum lacking knowledge necessary to make an informed decision. Then they listen to the loudest voice in the room and think that’s the end of the issue. In the letter below I’ve included plenty of information (that each of them received prior to the meeting) about the positives of Airbnbs in a community.

Meyer’s fear that J-town will be seen as backward as the result of media reports is the only fear he has about Airbnbs that holds some truth. The city will also be seen by outsiders as anti-tourism and anti-technology.

Here is the copy of a letter I sent to the City Council Dec. 8 after Code Enforcement Officer Kim Weber visited my home in late November:
Dec 8, 2017

Dear City Council members,

I’m writing to call your attention to the issue of short-term rentals and the law that is now being selectively enforced by the Code Enforcement Department. I am requesting that you consider making a change to the law and adopt new rules for registration of properties rather than simply declaring all short-term rentals illegal in Jeffersontown. I ask that while you consider the issue, and listen to all rational arguments for and against, that you suspend enforcement of the law.

I’m a Jeffersontown resident and active supporter of the city through my work in media. I own and operate the web site, as well as the Rusty Satellite Show podcast. Earlier this year, I hosted a podcast focused on Jeffersontown, in partnership with the Chamber and the Mayor, which highlighted the many positive events and individuals in the city. I’ve had the Mayor, Chamber president John Cosby and several other Jtown residents as guests on my show, and have worked to promote Jtown events, including the Gaslight Festival, on both my web site and podcast. I have been a member of the Chamber, and attend many local events sponsored by the City and the Chamber.

I bought my home in Jeffersontown at 3706 Willow (just 1/4 mile from City Hall) in 2013. During that year, I began listing my home on the Airbnb site. I have since welcomed dozens of guests happy to spend their time and money in Jeffersontown. Most ask for restaurant recommendations and for ideas of things to do while staying here, and I always recommend nearby restaurants and attractions. Many stay with Airbnb because hotels don’t welcome their pets, or children, or they simply want a place with some privacy located in a neighborhood. In four years of hosting, there has not been a single complaint, from guests or neighbors, and almost every guest has left a positive review of their experience. Guests have stayed for time periods ranging from several months to a weekend.

All guests must submit information about themselves and why they’re visiting to Airbnb. The online business assures quality through a rating system that disqualifies both hosts and guests who engage in actions that bring them in conflict with law enforcement or neighbors. In my experience, guests treat their Airbnb as they would their own home, cleaning up after themselves and being aware of their surroundings.

On. Nov. 29, I was surprised by Code Enforcement Officer Kim Weber, who knocked on my door and informed me that I was violating a Jeffersontown law by hosting short-term rentals, and that I would be fined if I continued. I asked Weber if there had been a complaint about my home, and he said there had not. I asked if there were other complaints about Airbnb, and he replied that there had been complaints. I later learned that there had been just two complaints, neither of which cited an actual incident, and those were from neighbors concerning the same Plainview property.  Weber’s enforcement efforts have since included exactly two properties, the one in Plainview on which the complaint was filed, and mine. A quick look at the Airbnb site reveals dozens of properties offered for rent in Jeffersontown.

This indicates to me that the Code Enforcement Officer, Weber, has made selective enforcement a personal decision, perhaps in retaliation for a story I wrote that included him back in 2011. If not personal, it’s hard to imagine he would select my property and no others, when it’s easy to see on the Airbnb web site that dozens of property owners are listing their homes on the site in violation of the Jtown ordinance. Perhaps he doesn’t understand how to navigate the Airbnb site, or he is not interested in enforcing the law in an equal and unbiased way.

Here’s what else I have learned.

First, through an Open Records request, I have seen a copy of the complaints filed Oct. 27 by Daniel Sorg and Jeffery Mellinger of the Plainview neighborhood. Sorg’s complaint is so full of paranoia and lacking in actual facts that I’m shocked anyone took it seriously. Sorg cited zero evidence of illegal activity in the Airbnb home next door, nor did he mention a specific incidence of any sort of disturbance. Instead, he engaged in fear-mongering, suggesting scenarios that are extremely rare in Airbnb rentals throughout the world. Mr. Sorg’s paranoia is so extreme that he believes his children are in danger because of the presence of people he doesn’t know.

The other complaint, from Mellinger, about the same property, again cites no actual harm, but a belief that harm may come. Mellinger’s chief concern seems to be a mythical idea that the home’s presence will hurt his property value, and the fact that he doesn’t like seeing anyone he doesn’t know in his neighborhood. I am willing to offer you volumes of actual evidence that Airbnb does not hurt property values, and provides significant benefits to neighborhoods.

As representatives of the people, you should certainly require that a citizen show evidence of harm before enacting or enforcing laws that affect other citizens. The fact is that the emails received from Sorg and Mellinger are not complaints as much as a list of things they fear might happen. Their complaints have no basis in reality. As council members, it is your responsibility to thoroughly research issues before arbitrarily creating and enforcing laws. Listening to the rants of a few angry homeowners, and reacting by acceding to their demands, without hearing all sides, is not the proper way to handle issues that come before you.

As a result of these questionable complaints, the city’s Planning and Zoning Committee held a Nov. 27 meeting and decided that it would begin enforcing a law that has NEVER been enforced in the city. While representatives of neighborhoods opposed to Airbnbs were invited to present their case, no one representing an Airbnb property was invited to this meeting. Of course the committee chose to leave the law as is.

As you may know, in 2016 Metro Louisville, like many local governments in the United States, adopted a sensible process for registering short-term rentals and creating a new revenue stream for its government. Rather than criminalizing a practice that is accepted and celebrated in 340,000 communities across the globe, I’m suggesting you use Metro Louisville’s rules as a blueprint to create your own set of regulations that would allow property owners like myself to rent our homes legally on a short-term basis.

Another factor to consider is the negative media your law is bound to create for Jeffersontown. Already, there’s been a story on WAVE-TV. I assure you the tone of media reports will present the city as resistant to technology and tourism. Why wouldn’t you want to be known as a city that embraces the sharing economy, one that welcomes visitors with open arms? If enforced, the law will certainly reduce tourism and set the city apart as a lone wolf in resisting what has become an accepted and expected option in the way people travel and see the world. It’s the equivalent of creating a law prohibiting ride share services in the city because it would slow down traffic.

I can supply with you with volumes of numbers, but consider these few:

In a 2016 release, Airbnb said it created $22.9 million of economic impact, in Metro Louisville, with 1,500 properties available that welcomed 48,000 guests to the city. Those guests generated $6.6 million for local hosts (who pay taxes on the income). Each guest spent an average of $128 a day with local merchants. The typical Airbnb is rented just one day per month, and Airbnb owners average $3,700 in annual income, money which is often used to upgrade and improve their homes. I don’t know how much of this total comes from Jeffersontown, but it is significant. Your law, if fully enforced, would create a groundswell of opposition from dozens of property owners like myself.

In fact, statistics prove that homeowners who use Airbnb to rent all or part of their homes spend that income on improvements, making homes more attractive and thereby increasing property values. In my own case, I’ve been able to add a screened-in porch, hot tub, storage shed and security system to my home’s amenities. I have my siding power-washed annually and I also pay for a local cleaning service to provide that service at my home, a contribution to the economy I wouldn’t make without Airbnb income.

Under your law, even rentals for the weeks surrounding the Kentucky Derby would be prohibited. This has long been a stable source of income for local homeowners. Your law would make the city stand out as the only local community that doesn’t welcome Derby guests in local homes. I can guarantee you will receive loads of negative publicity when that happens.

If your Code Enforcement Department begins an earnest effort to enforce this law, rather than singling out one property owner the Department’s personnel holds a grudge against, you will experience a serious backlash. I’m sure many of the dozens of homeowners offering property on Airbnb in Jtown are not yet aware of this archaic regulation, just as I was not aware of the Planning Meeting where the issue was debated.

I love the city and enjoy promoting it through my media properties, and I don’t want to see any negative attention come to the area. I’m willing to meet with any of you individually, or all of you as a group, to provide you with factual information about the benefits of short-term rentals to a community. Please don’t continue to act based on the irrational fears of a few paranoid individuals.

I’m asking you to stop the enforcement process while you consider changes to the current law, and to begin the process of adopting regulations for property owners.

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to talking with each of you soon.

Rick Redding