By Ann Marie Shambaugh
The historic homes in the Village are a testament to what life used to be like in downtown Zionsville, and the rustic charm of the area has long been a draw to those near and far. But a very modern concept – online short-term rentals – has caused quite a stir in an area known for its peaceful streets.
Steven and Tamara Totty, who live on Laurel Avenue, began renting out the space above their detached garage several years ago through Airbnb.com, a website that connects travelers with short-term rentals. In 2015 they welcomed 94 guests and earned a “SUPER HOST” distinction, which is only given to about 10 percent of Airbnb hosts.
Many of their guests, who’ve come from 34 states and four countries, have left positive reviews, calling Dolly Pines Cottage Apartment “perfection,” “immaculate” and “gorgeous.” But those who live nearby aren’t so keen on the arrangement and have asked the Town of Zionsville to step in.
A neighbor filed a formal complaint with the town in the summer of 2015, and after confirming the situation town officials issued a cease and desist letter to the Tottys, saying their rental qualified as a bed and breakfast, which is a prohibited use under zoning laws for the area.
After receiving the notice, the Tottys honored existing paid reservations but stopped taking new ones. Now, they’re asking the Zionsville Board of Zoning Appeals to approve an exception to the ordinance to permit the rental of their space. The BZA is scheduled to discuss the matter at its July 12 meeting.
The Tottys don’t believe their home qualifies as a bed and breakfast because they don’t serve food. They believe that bringing guests into their home is a benefit for the area because they encourage visitors to enjoy local restaurants and shops.
“They’re trying to promote the Village. They’re trying to provide people with a beautiful place in the Village to stay while they’re in Zionsville,” said Mike Andreoli, an attorney representing the Tottys. “It seems to me anything we can do to help the town business owners and merchants – provided we’re not doing it in a manner that would do injustice to others in the community – is a positive thing for the merchants of the town.”
Patrice Thomas has lived in the home next door to the Totty’s for more than 20 years. In a remonstrance letter to the BZA, she stated that she chose her home because of the quiet streets, familiar neighbors and feeling of comfort and safety.
“That has all changed since my next door neighbor decided to turn their home into a revolving door for strangers, despite the fact that it is a flagrant violation of our town ordinance,” Thomas wrote. “Strangers sit in the backyard and have a direct view into my yard and windows. Strangers walk the streets at various times of the day and night, along with more car traffic.”
Other neighbors, such as Guinn Doyle, are opposed to allowing a commercial establishment in a strictly residential area.
“The issue is not whether they serve breakfast. The issue is they have nightly rentals. It’s a hotel,” Doyle said. “It would be like saying we’ll rent you this space but you bring your own bed, and we won’t feed you, so it’s not a bed and breakfast. It is a bed and breakfast. It was advertised on Airbnb.”
The Totty’s have sought to limit Dolly Pines Cottage Apartment’s impact in the area by offering off-street parking for guests and vetting them before approving a stay.
By taking their case to the BZA, the Tottys are not only hoping to begin hosting guests again but also to pave the way for others in the area to open up their homes.
“One of the reasons that we’re going through the process is to … provide a list of standards that have to be done for others who seek to want to do this,” Andreoli said.
Although the Tottys don’t serve food at Dolly Pines Cottage Apartment, the Town of Zionsville classifies it as a bed and breakfast because the homeowners also live on the property – even though the primary rental space is above a detached garage.
If the Tottys owned the home but lived elsewhere, they likely would not be violating the ordinance, according to Wayne DeLong, Zionsville director of planning and economic development. Having multiple families on a site designed for one can cause problems, he said.
“You now have two families with two different sets of demands and needs and expectations,” DeLong said. “If someone is living next door to a property they believed one family resided in that had one set of pets and one set of expectations and one set of schedules, and now you have two families that live there, all of a sudden you’ve doubled the impact.”
Andreoli believes that Zionsville’s ordinance is dated and doesn’t take new technology into account. In addition to prohibiting bed and breakfasts, it also bans boarding houses, neither of which fit the Totty’s situation, he said.
“You’re talking about 1950s and 1960s terminology to try and deal with a process that is a modern Internet process,” Andreoli said. “(Internet bookings) weren’t even on the radar screen as much as 10 or 15 years ago, so our ordinances are out of date with the technology and things that are happening right now, which is not unusual.”
Other homes in Zionsville are listed on Airbnb and other short-term rental sites, and they may or may not be in violation of town ordinances, DeLong said, depending on several factors. Because of limited resources, the town only investigates when it receives a formal complaint.
“How do we discern if this is a property that is owner occupied that is being rented or if this is simply a rental property that is available and the owner lives in Carmel?” DeLong said. “All of a sudden you’re potentially taking on some discretion and challenging somebody when you don’t have a complaint to go on.”
The issue is not limited to Zionsville; municipalities across the nation are considering ordinances to deal with short-term rentals. Airbnb recently filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco – where it is based – for passing a law that requires hosts to register with the city.
On its website, Airbnb stresses the importance of learning local ordinances relating to short-term rentals before signing up as a host. It also states that its representatives are “working with governments around the world to clarify these rules so that everyone has a clear understanding of what the laws are.”