Are Short-Term Rentals Permitted In Your Neighborhood?

November 16, 2017
Aaron S. Marines

Short-term vacation home rentals – such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and others – are becoming more and more common today.  They are present not only in traditional vacation spots such as the Poconos, but more and more in every kind of neighborhood.  Many of these short-term rentals are happening in relatively “normal” suburban or urban communities.  Very often, these neighborhoods are not equipped to deal with vacationing out-of-towners using, and all too frequently abusing, one of their neighbor’s homes every week.  So the question remains “are these short-term rentals violations?” 

Pennsylvania Courts have recently said that in most cases, short-term rentals are not violations of typical single-family residential zoning provisions.  In Slice of Life, LLC v. Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board, the Commonwealth Court continued a series of decisions on this issue.  There, the owner of a home bought it strictly for rental purposes.  He used it exclusively for short term rentals.  The Township cited the owner for a violation of the zoning ordinance.  The zoning ordinance permitted only single-family residential uses.  The Township claimed that since the owner was using the house strictly as a short-term rental property, that the use was much more a “tourist home,” or a hotel or “transient lodging.”  The Commonwealth Court determined that the zoning ordinance did not specifically prohibit short-term rentals in otherwise residential homes.  Specifically, the Court relied on two other very recent cases (Shvekh v. Stroud Township and Marchenko v. Pocono Township Zoning Hearing Board) to say:

Airbnb has expanded the possible uses of single-family dwellings and the Township can address these new uses in the zoning ordinance.  However…the property meets the definition of single-family residence because it has been “designed for or occupied exclusive for one family.”  The vacation rental of the entire home bears no relation to the bedroom by bedroom rental that is the hallmark of a tourist home. . . .

The zoning ordinances in these three cases are very similar to most municipalities.  Most zoning ordinances define a “dwelling” or a “single-family residence” as a structure designed for use by one family.  Then, in most of the residentially zoned areas, this single-family residence is a permitted use.  The Commonwealth Court has ruled three times in the last couple of years that short-term vacation rentals are not prohibited by these kinds of Zoning Ordinances.

So what can a municipality do?  It is clear that if a municipality wants to restrict short-term vacation rentals in certain districts, it needs to specifically prohibit these types of uses.  The specifics on how to do this are different for every zoning ordinance.  Many zoning ordinances could be altered by defining a short-term vacation rental, and adjusting the definitions of hotels, lodges, boarding homes and things like that.  With these definitions in place, the zoning ordinance could specifically prohibit these types of uses in certain zoning districts.

Short-term vacation rentals have very quickly become an issue in many municipalities. Municipalities should be thinking about which areas are appropriate or inappropriate for this type of use.  If a municipality thinks that a short-term vacation rental is inappropriate in a zoning district, it needs to take affirmative steps to specifically prohibit this kind of use. Otherwise, short-term vacation rentals are probably allowed in every neighborhood throughout the municipality.

Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Commercial Real EstateLand Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.