Chapel Hill: Opinion

Mark Zimmerman: No B&B’s allowed? No problem

Good news for travelers who would like to stay in a bed and breakfast while visiting Chapel Hill. A decades-old ordinance prohibiting them will likely be changed.

Better news for travelers who can’t wait that long. You can stay in any one of nearly 50 “bed and breakfasts” in Chapel Hill right now.

All thanks to the Internet.

People often wonder why Chapel Hill isn’t home to bed and breakfast inns. This feels like the perfect place for them. Pretty residential streets, walkable to downtown. A small-town atmosphere. Southern hospitality. A steady flow of tourists, parents and alumni. One can’t help but think bed and breakfasts would be very successful here.

But prospects for success doomed the idea many years ago. When the idea was proposed, neighborhoods objected to traffic concerns and strangers staying nearby. This was an era when almost any kind of business was an anathema, so the Town Council outlawed them.

But after a Chamber of Commerce intercity visit to Asheville several years ago minds began to change. Asheville hosts 55 B&B’s, and they were easily identifiable around town because they were the best-kept homes on any given street. Far from being a problem, they were assets, not only to the town at large, but to the neighborhoods they helped keep up.

Since that trip, the Chamber, the Downtown Partnership, the Visitors Center and even Preservation Chapel Hill have come out in favor of amending the town’s Land Use Management Ordinance to allow bed and breakfasts.

The reasons cited make common sense. B&B’s preserve existing structures, allow owners needing income to avoid converting property to full-time rentals, keep buildings and grounds restored and maintained, increase tax valuations, and will attract more visitors who will patronize more businesses and provide more hotel occupancy tax revenue to our efforts to promote the area. Even local hotels thought B&B’s would add more to the area than they would cost them in competition.

To make things official, the Chapel Hill 2020 process included a recommendation to allow B&B’s in the next re-write of the ordinances. Those revisions were due this fall; so hopefully by next year we’ll see this antiquated prohibition relegated to history.

In the meantime, entrepreneurial families across the area haven’t waited to tap into the demand for B&B’s. Through an Internet app called Airbnb.com, they have offered everything from single rooms in their home to full houses, ranging in price from $35 to $300 a night, to travelers looking for unique places to stay.

Airbnb.com is part of the “sharing economy,” providing a convenient website connecting people looking for a place to stay with people looking to make some extra money. Photos and reviews let you know what you’ll get. It’s part of an underground economy powered by the World Wide Web that circumvents what many consider to be overly restrictive government regulation.

It’s the same sentiment that drives so many to use the “sharing economy’s” Uber and Lyft taxi services.

Until Chapel Hill updates its rules, Airbnb.com has no competition in town. Every night’s stay in one of its offerings is lost tax revenue to the town and the visitor’s bureau. If we want to start officially welcoming those guests, and collecting their fees, we need to change our B&B no vacancy policy soon.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at markrzim@gmail.com

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