Putting B&B’s to rest

When I read town staff’s original proposal for an ordinance to allow bed-and-Nancy Oatesbreakfasts in the historic district, my first thought was: We’re eating our seed corn.

In August, town staff unveiled a plan to allow homes in the historic district to convert to B&B’s of up to 12 bedrooms and as many as 25 guests at an event. The homeowner was not required to stay on-site with the guests (contrary to state law). Instead, those duties could be turned over to a tag-team of managers.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce has been pushing for such an expanded B&B ordinance — at present, the town allows B&B’s of only two bedrooms in a home where the owner lives — ever since a 2010 field trip to Asheville, where B&B’s were useful in reinvigorating a deteriorating historic district. As the staff readied its proposal for the Planning Commission meeting on Sept. 1, the expanded ordinance had the backing of the Visitors Bureau and Preservation Chapel Hill as well. Allowing large-scale B&B’s would preserve expensive-to-maintain historic homes, they said, and would bring more visitors downtown.

Historic district homeowners, on the other hand, were quick to point out the drawbacks of living next door to a boutique hotel: not enough parking, too much noise, destabilizing effect of transient guests, too easy to convert to a student boarding house. The town has a noise ordinance, but if the B&B owner doesn’t live on-site, the onus for keeping the peace shifts from the innkeeper to the neighbors who have to call the police after a certain hour.

Given how much we’ve heard in recent years about supply-and-demand theory being used to rationalize building more high-end apartment complexes, I was surprised that the chamber backed off supply-side economics when it came to overnight accommodations. Rather than argue that increasing the options of where people can stay overnight would drive down the price of hotel rooms all across town, the chamber contends that the target markets are different: Guests drawn to a B&B would not stay in a hotel. (Note: They would if the town had no B&B’s.) (Note again: That stratified market theory applies to the housing market, too. Flooding the town with high-rent apartments won’t have any effect on middle-class and workforce housing. Consistency, people.)

Back to the seed corn: The town needs money for some big-ticket items like more buses, a new police station and replacement fire stations, and the extra revenue from permit fees, occupancy tax and commercial property tax rates looks mighty tempting. But if a new ordinance sullies the gracious historic neighborhoods by allowing a B&B on every corner, it destroys the off-the-beaten-path charm that attracts B&B customers in the first place.

At its Sept. 1 meeting, the Planning Commission worked out a compromise: B&B owners have to live in the B&B as their primary residence; only four bedrooms can be rented to guests; and historic districts are exempt from the new B&B rules.

The matter comes before Town Council on Sept. 28.
– Nancy Oates

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1 Comment

  1. John Sweet

     /  September 21, 2015

    Nancy–I’m with you until the last paragraph. Actually, the Planning Commission did not work out a compromise; they rejected proposed change to the ordinances. Your confusion is understandable, because the Planning Department has done a lot to muddy the waters. In advance of the Planning Commission meeting, the Planning Department posted an account of its proposal and reactions to it that was misleading in several ways. On the bright side, they scaled back the proposal a little bit by lowering the number of bedrooms “by right” to four (plus manager’s lodging) but they also left 12 as an option by special use permit. Also on the bright side, the written submission stated the changes “would apply throughout the Town, except in the Historic Districts.” But during the hearing, the the staff person present took it back; that the Historic Districts not actually be exempt from the changes; in fact they would be included in the ordinance–subject to guidelines the HDC was supposedly going to create in the future about appropriate B&Bs. (Not sure what’s up there. On campus, we like to think that “no” means “no.” Apparently, the Planning Department is in more of a “Don’t take no for an answer” kinda mood.) Meanwhile, on the topic of the HDC, the Planning Department’s document stated that the HDC had “Recommended denial with conditions”; actually, what the HDC recommended was denial with emphasis. The HDC voted to reject the proposed changes and also voted that if the Council insisted on accepting the proposed changes that the Historic Districts should be exempt. (Again, I took that to mean actually exempt; rather than not really exempt at all). One wonders why is the Planning Department having such a hard time being truthful and straightforward about what they are proposing and what response they’ve met with from the town’s advisory commissions.

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