Resort Planning Commissioners Talk Airbnb; OC Comp Plan May Address Airbnb

OCEAN CITY — One of the fastest growing platforms for connecting visitors with rentals in Ocean City could be getting a closer look after resort planners this week expressed a need to examine potential regulations for Airbnb.

Airbnb enables property owners to rent homes, apartments and even single rooms to visitors searching online for accommodations in the resort by bypassing the traditional rental agencies. Founded in San Francisco in 2008, it is hardly a new concept and allows Internet-savvy visitors to pick and choose accommodations with the click of an app, which connects them to property owners seeking to rent their homes or even a single room in their home.

Just as Uber has changed the transportation industry, Airbnb is making remarkable inroads on the traditional vacation rental industry and has become a multi-billion dollar business with millions of available accommodations thousands of cities and hundreds of countries. Locally, as of December there were over 175 Airbnb listings in Ocean City alone and more than 300 across Delmarva.

Like most innovative advances, the Airbnb technology is moving faster than the desire to regulate it. Typically, Airbnb rentals are short-term, perhaps a weekend or even a single day, and don’t fit neatly into a community’s zoning designations.

Consequently, a debate has arisen about the legality of many of the Airbnb rentals in communities all over the country, and it appears Ocean City could be joining the fray. At the end of the Ocean City Planning and Zoning meeting on Tuesday, Commissioner Lauren Taylor suggested the resort should at least attempt to stay out in front of the growing phenomenon.

“We really need to address this whole Airbnb issue,” she said. “It’s out of control. We need to find a way to regulate it somehow. It’s huge and we ought to take a look at it.”

In a resort town with strict zoning designations dictating where, when and how long short-term and long-term rentals are permitted, Airbnb does not fit neatly into the formula. For over a year, Ocean City has wrestled with varying success on its rental policies in traditional single-family residential neighborhoods and the proliferation of Airbnb rentals only complicates the issue.

Planning Commissioner Peck Miller said other communities are facing the same dilemma and suggested taking a closer look at how others are handling it.

“It would be helpful to see what other communities are doing,” he said. “There are other communities already looking at this and acting on it, so we can look at how they are addressing it.”

Taylor said some communities are adjusting their zoning codes to either accommodate the online rental platform or at least dictate where it is legal.

“They’re creating a zoning designation called accessory short-term use areas where you can rent a room in a residential area,” she said. “It’s huge and it can destroy neighborhoods. I think we ought to at least look at it and decide if we want to do something or not.”

Ocean City Zoning Administrator Blaine Smith said the state has looked into the growing phenomenon to some degree, although there’s little currently on the books at the state level to regulate it. Smith said that effort has resulted in the collection of specific information about Airbnb’s proliferation in the state.

“Maryland did address it as a legislative issue when it first started popping up in Salisbury and other places, so there is a lot of data to show why it needs to be regulated to maintain compatibility with neighborhoods,” he said.

Ocean City is currently in the process of revising its comprehensive plan, and Smith said that could be the appropriate place to address the Airbnb issue.

“I do think that’s one of the components of the updated plan and one of the challenges we’re working on, and if you want to move it up to the front burner, that may be a way of approaching it,” he said.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.