City Council votes down letting students live in hotels

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January 15, 2010

11:15 AM

The Williamsburg City Council voted down a motion Thursday to allow College of William and Mary students to reside in hotels and motels throughout the city.

The proposal would have expanded the ability of the College to house students in hotels throughout the city rather than just the Museum Support district, the only area of the city currently able to lease to students.

It was passed 6-1 by the Planning Commission in December and seemed likely to pass through city council. Council members, however, were swayed by landlords and rental agencies who spoke against the change.

Although the ordinance passed through the planning commission relatively unchallenged, several property managers from the city attended Thursday’s city council meeting to argue that the ordinance could hurt the city’s rental industry.

“I can’t tell you the impact this would have on the apartment industry in Williamsburg and James City County,” Peninsula Apartment Council Executive Committee Chairman Kathy Scott said. “The ordinance is more open-ended than is needed … and it would make it even harder for apartment businesses to compete.”

Lawson Enterprises property manager Ryan Hunt told council that apartments in the city average a 10 percent vacancy rate, and demonstrated his point by asking the landlords present to raise their hands if they had vacancies; nearly all did.

Besides the bad economy, Hunt said the city’s rental industry has experienced several legislative setbacks recently, including the recent council decision to allow some houses in the city to house four unrelated people instead of three.

College representatives testified last year that the ordinance would assist primarily with summer transfer students. Currently, approximately 10 students live at the Governor’s Inn. Officials also testified they did not expect more than 50 students to live in hotel housing were the ordinance to pass.

City Planner Reed Nester estimated that 50 students living in hotels instead of rental units would represent approximately a $200,000 annual loss to the city’s rental industry.

No hotel representatives spoke at the meeting.

Various city council members noted they had been prepared to pass the ordinance, but were swayed by the testimony from the rental industry.

“I had my mind set,” council member Bobby Braxton said. “But after listening to people here, it gives me lots of food for thought.”

Council member Judy Knudson, who also noted her change in opinion, argued that the College can handle its own residency issues.

“There seems to be a feeling at the College that there’s some big crisis in housing,” she said. “But there’s not.”

Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler M.A. ’76 asked City Attorney Joe Phillips what would happen in the event of a dorm fire or other catastrophic incident requiring emergency housing for large numbers of students. Phillips responded that, technically, long-term hotel housing is not legal, but in similar emergencies in the past the city has not stopped the College from using hotels during emergencies and would be unlikely to do so in the future.

The ordinance was voted down 4-0. Council member Paul Freiling ’83 works for Colonial Williamsburg and so abstained because CW, as the operator of the Museum Support district, could suffer from the ordinance’s failure.

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