Local municipalities have faced challenges to their zoning codes in recent years with the expansion of sharing economy platforms like Airbnb, HomeAway, FlipKey, and now Glamping Hub.  These platforms connect individuals with extra space in their homes or apartments to rent, for what is usually a short-term period of time, with potential guests.  Guests can either rent a whole home or apartment or just a room while the owner of the property lives on-site during the stay.  The latest trend known as “glamping” is where the hotel experience meets the more traditional and rugged camping adventure.  Glamping Hub facilitates such an experience.

Glamping Hub has been described as the Airbnb of camping.  The site allows vacationers to search for tents, huts, cabins, or yurts available for rent across the country.  Much like Airbnb, the spaces available for rent are typically part of someone’s backyard, rather than a traditional campsite with other tents mere meters away.  While sometimes cheaper and more quaint than traditional campsites, backyard tents or cabins may not fall within permissible local zoning codes.  Municipalities are thus faced with gray areas regarding the legality of such arrangements, since the new type of rental does not fit neatly anywhere within the existing codes.  The question then becomes how or whether the municipality should try to enforce the existing zoning codes against these new glamping participants.

A few localities in Pennsylvania such as Lower Mount Bethel Township and East Lampeter Township have tried enforcing the preexisting codes against “landlords” on third party rental sites.  In Lower Mount Bethel, difficulty arose from the code’s definition of “vacation resort.”  A family decided to set up a tent on the outskirts of its 42-acre farm with “Tentrr,” a company that specializes in installing canvas tents on remote corners of large properties for renters to enjoy the outdoors away from the traditional campsite scene.  The company then connects the property owner to renters interested in camping on the property.  Unfortunately for the family, their canvas tent without running water or electricity constituted a vacation resort under the local zoning codes and was thus, disallowed since their farm fell within an agricultural district where vacation resorts are prohibited.

In East Lampeter Township a somewhat different problem arose.  Amelia Obioma sought to transform a local farm in Lancaster County into an agricultural tourism destination where tents made to look like hotel rooms would occupy the 1.7-acre space.  The tents would be complete with queen sized beds and bathroom facilities inside similar to some of the safari resorts in Africa.  But Obioma first needed an amendment to the existing zoning code in order to do so, since vacation resorts are similarly banned in agricultural zoning districts in East Lampeter Township.

Lower Mount Bethel defines a vacation resort as: “a building, group of buildings or parcel of land under single ownership or agreement which provides combined facilities for the lodging, dining, entertainment, outdoor and indoor recreation and leisure-time enjoyment of the vacationing public.”  According to the zoning hearing board or zoning officer, a canvas tent with a fire pit and access to stargazing qualifies as entertainment.  When a canvas tent without running water or electricity can be classified as a vacation resort, it is almost beyond question that some of the more “glam” camping sites would qualify.  In many cases, the zoning board is entitled to deference regarding its code interpretation, and courts will only intervene where the board’s decisions are plainly incorrect.

Other municipalities across the country have faced similar issues with rental platforms which do not fit within zoning codes.  Sierra Vista, Arizona natives voted to deny a special use permit for Julie Campos to operate a glamping business on a secluded 20-acre plot on the Javelina Trail.  Her neighbors were concerned about damage to the fragile road system, invasion of privacy, safety concerns, groundwater problems, and lost serenity from the increased use in the secluded area—the same concerns raised over Airbnb rentals in quiet residential neighborhoods.

Citizens in Bend, Oregon have chosen a different option—asking for forgiveness, rather than permission.  Some landowners posted listings on Airbnb for tents in their backyards that vacationers could rent for significantly less than a night in a hotel.  With local hotels crying out that the rentals were unfair competition, and neighbors complaining that the renters were disruptive, local zoning boards enacted requirements that rentals could not be within 250 feet of each other, and that anyone renting on Airbnb would need to get an annual operating permit.  Unsurprisingly, much of the subsequent enforcement for the new requirements has come from neighbor complaints.

Perhaps the best option for local municipalities is to amend their zoning codes to provide for exactly what the township or municipality wants in its zoned locations.  Rather than ignoring the problem or attempting to patch together a new definition for what constitutes a vacation resort, the municipalities might consider adding a section to their codes on third party platform rentals and in which zones they are permitted.  These sections could squarely cover Airbnb, Tentrr, and any new companies which make a business of connecting renters to vacation destinations.

Many of the rental platforms try to help the property owners by offering resources regarding local zoning ordinances or regulations that they need to follow in order to rent their property in compliance.  Some, however, leave it to individual property owners to discover what they can and cannot do when the local municipality sends them a notice of violation.  Local municipal officials can help property owners by holding informational sessions on Airbnb and camping rental requirements or by making information readily available online for property owners to view.  Arguably the best thing for local municipalities to do is create clear zoning codes that let property owners know what they can and cannot do with their extra rooms or space.

This article was written with contribution from Sarah Rothermel, 3rd year law student at Widener Law Commonwealth.