DAVIS, W.Va. – Davis, West Virginia is known for its growing outdoor tourism, but one issue associated with the tourism industry has caused town council meetings to run hours past their normal schedules: short-term rentals.
The small town has a population of only 674, and according to Mayor Al Tomson, tourists can increase the population to around 10,000 on the weekends. The mayor said tourism to this area boomed in the last few years due to the COVID pandemic, and as a result, people from out of town have begun buying second homes in Davis.
“In doing that, they’re saying, well, we’re not going to go there all the time, so why don’t we go ahead and do Airbnb and VRBO or short term rental it so that it’ll cover our mortgage, and then we can go there on the weekends when we want to,” Tomson explained.
The change has caused concern among residents who argue that the increased number of short-term housing has created issues for employees finding affordable places to rent. They also cited noise complaints and a lack of regulation as concerns. The town decided to put a moratorium on short-term rental business licenses last August as a result of the concerns. The moratorium was supposed to end this past January, but was extended during the last town council meeting to the end of June. Tomson says the reason behind the moratorium is to put a pause on creating more short-term rentals while the town comes up with some solutions.
“What we’re saying is we’re trying to find a balance. That’s what Davis is trying to do. A balance between community and business short-term rentals coexisting. We’re also looking at a comprehensive plan that will help us establish zoning,” Tomson explained, “We want short-term rentals to focus on the commercial areas of Davis so that you might be next to a shop or a restaurant, but you’re not in a residential community.”
Affordable Long-Term Housing
The main concern of citizens seems to be the accessibility of long-term housing, especially for low-income employees. Lauren Paslawksy, a Davis resident, said she had trouble finding a place to rent and that she lived in a house that had mold issues for a while before another place opened up.
“It’s tough. If you wanted to move tomorrow to another long-term house, it’s hard to find. It’s an area where you really have to know someone to get what you’re looking for here, or look for when something opens up,” said Paslawsky.
On the other side, some short-term rental owners argue that the problem lies with the vacant homes in town. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 454 housing units in Davis and 145 of them are vacant. During the town council meeting, Tompson said there are 27 short-term rentals in town and another three are waiting to get a license.
Cindy Robeson owns Stumptown Ales, which operated both a short-term and a long-term rental property. She said she was even having a hard time finding a place for her son to rent five or six years ago, and that’s how she started her long-term rental business. Her son recently moved out of the rental after buying his own house in Davis, but finding a place was still difficult.
“He wanted to be here and grow here and have a family here, and it was hard for him to buy a house because all these other people kept buying houses,” Robeson explained, “So finally one worked, and we got it, so he moved out of our long-term rental, and then we had the dilemma of, do we keep it a long-term rental or can we Airbnb it? Financially, it’s more lucrative to Airbnb it, but that’s not where our head was at with this one.”
Robeson ultimately decided to keep the house a long-term rental.
“We’re not making nearly as much money, but that’s the nice thing we’re doing for this town and helping provide housing because any workers coming in, they’re having a hard time finding spaces to rent for a year or six months,” said Robeson.
The Culture of the Town
The other concern citizens of Davis have is that the town might lose some of its charm or sense of community when it draws more tourists. Specifically, citizens have shown concern for noise and proposed that short-term rentals should go through some type of inspection.
“Because today, you might have a neighbor, you might have a friend that lives across the street. You may have a family that lives a block away. But when short-term rentals start taking over those houses, now you have a revolving door of visitors that are staying in those houses,” Tomson explained.
Short-term rental owners worry about the nature of the proposed annual inspection, because homes in Davis are generally older. Tomson said he recognizes that many of the homes in Davis are 100 years old or older, and any inspection on short-term rentals would only be fundamental safety things “that almost everyone can agree to.” However, short-term rental owners argue that services like Airbnb self-correct most of those issues, because the website allows for both the renter and the owner to be rated and reviewed.
“I think most people are putting their best foot forward. They want people to come back. They want to have that revenue come in, so they’re going to want to take care of it as it needs to be. So, I think that those inspections are a little heavy-handed,” said Robeson.
Since the person renting the Airbnb or VRBO is also being reviewed, short-term rental owners argue that they are more likely to be on their best behavior, so that they can continue renting with the service. Robeson said she hasn’t heard of noise complaints being much of a problem so far in the town, either.
“I mean, there’s [local] people down my street that play a lot of music sometimes. It is what it is. I don’t see that complaint too much, and I don’t see it [myself] too much,” said Robeson.
The Balancing Act
Business owners in Davis and Thomas have said short-term rentals bring in a lot of revenue when tourists are within a short walk to their storefronts. The only other alternatives are the state park resorts and short-term rentals that all require a drive to get to the businesses. It seems that most can agree that short-term rentals have their place in Davis and that balance here is key.
“I don’t think the town means any ill will or harm to all these homeowners, but I do think all these secondary homeowners also need to understand where the town is coming from as well,” Robeson expressed, “Because this town was here long before tourism was the main focus, and that’s part of the problem to a lot of the people that have been here for generations and their whole life. They see things differently, too, but they also have to understand that the town is moving forward and tourism pays a lot of the bills here now and sustains a lot of these businesses.”
In addition, what Davis chooses to do here could impact the rest of the state, which might face similar issues as the state embraces tourism more. Tompson said he has already had many calls from other communities in West Virginia to hear about Davis’s solutions to these types of issues, because they have similar concerns.
“We’re kind of breaking trail for everybody behind us,” said Tomson.
Ultimately, Tomson said he feels confident the town will reach a conclusion together through open dialogue and insists that these are good problems to have, because though an increase in tourism comes with some issues, the benefits far outweigh the new challenges.
“We feel that there needs to be some balance between nothing and everything [in terms of short-term rental restrictions] and finding where that sweet spot exists, and that’s what we’re working towards, and that’s why we keep listening to people,” Thomson said.