Airbnb debate drifts to Mount Pleasant from Charleston

Michael Barnett of Mount Pleasant is seeking a license to rent out this room above his garage through Airbnb. inside the property he rents out short-term through Airbnb.

Mount Pleasant resident Michael Barnett rents the room above his garage to paying guests for $135 a night.

While a small building behind a suburban house might not be a traditional bed-and-breakfast, Barnett’s going through the approval process to become a bona-fide B&B operator.

The reason: It’s the only way he can legally operate a rental through Airbnb, the expanding app-based “community marketplace” that enables people to rent out all or parts of their homes, sometimes for very short stays.

As Barnett’s case shows, the debate over the person-to-person accommodations booking service is just starting to stir in this fast-growing suburban town of more than 70,000.

The city of Charleston began wrestling with Airbnb on the peninsula last year when it started issuing citations with penalties of up to $1,092 for violations of its short-term rental ordinances.

Across the harbor, in Mount Pleasant, it’s a newer phenomenon, said Christiane Farrell, the town’s planning and development director.

“At this point in time, I think that this has kind of just very recently become more of an issue,” she said.

It also coincides with the town’s updated zoning code. Bed-and-breakfasts are now part of it.

“That’s one step that we took a little over a year ago really ... not anticipating ... what would happen,” Farrell said.

The arrival of largely unregulated online services like Airbnb and the ride-hailing app Uber — and how to deal with them — is a topic that’s come up nationally in planning, Farrell said.

“It’s kind of along the same lines as Uber and just this whole sharing economy that’s starting to emerge,” added Kelly Cousino, senior planner for Mount Pleasant.

In Mount Pleasant, if a property is a primary residence, and the owner or tenant isn’t living in a so-called planned-development area, the owner or tenant needs to obtain a special exception to rent or sublet space for 28 days or less. Bed-and-breakfasts also need to have business licenses.

But for those using Airbnb or similar online lodging services, the stays are often shorter than four weeks. Such is the case for a reservation Barnett has coming up.

Barnett said when he learned he might be violating town rules, he stopped taking new business until he can obtain the B&B license by getting an exception from the board of zoning appeals. He’s honoring reservations he previously booked.

At least one Mount Pleasant resident already has been approved for a B&B. While Joshua Feldman’s application for an exception didn’t explicitly mention Airbnb, he asked for the OK “to allow short-term rentals less than seven days” and noted that River Watch area property is his main home.

For a couple in I’On, the process was different, and it has not gone in their favor so far.

Steven and Elisabeth Lenes also wanted to operate as an Airbnb rental site. But two committees that considered the plan recommended that Town Council deny it.

At a planning commission meeting last month, some nearby residents spoke out against the Lenes’ proposal. One “expressed concern with the negative impact this use would have on the quality of life within the neighborhood,” according to the minutes from the June 17 meeting. Another said it “would affect the resale values of their homes.”

Barnett’s B&B request is scheduled to be taken up later this month. He’s aware that residents are concerned.

“They listed all these reasons — noise, cars going up and down the driveway,” Barnett said. “Well, there’s going to be noise if it’s a ... long-term rental, and there’s going to be cars going up and down the driveway if it’s a long-term rental.”

For property owners, he said, long-term rentals aren’t as profitable. Barnett estimates he might charge $1,500 to $1,800 a month to a potential tenant who wants to rent his room for a few months this winter. But if someone was renting it on a nightly basis through Airbnb, he could bring in as much as $4,500 a month.

“The problem with renting it long-term is, and I think a lot of people would run into this, there’s no washer and dryer, and there’s no place to put one,” he said.

Barnett’s rental is a studio-like apartment, with a bed for two, bathroom, kitchen and dining area. It’s equipped with a small refrigerator, table and chairs and a TV. Outside is a woodchip-covered parking area. A welcome binder includes information about the area for out-of-town guests.

Barnett offers a bare-bones breakfast, too, with a Keurig coffeemaker, oatmeal and bottled water.

He thinks Airbnb should be regulated.

“I think the town should regulate these the same way they regulate a hotel, because that’s essentially what this is,” he said.

He also has a back-up plan in case his bed-and breakfast proposal gets shot down,

“If the town says no to me, I’ll just rent it long-term,” he said.

Reach Allison Prang at 937-5705 or on Twitter @AllisonPrang.