By: Lydia Crawley
The Parsons Advocate
Comments made by Mayor Al Tomson of the Town of Davis sparked controversy during a meeting of the Town Council on January 24. The controversy arose from a discussion relating to a business license application by resident Craig O’Connor regarding an Airbnb property that O’Connor is currently renovating at 676 Henry Avenue.
The controversial comments arose from Tomson stating that he was familiar with the building in question and an admission that he had been in the building without the knowledge of the owner. Tomson claimed that he had been admitted to the building by a construction crew. The debate was over whether the owner knew of the entrance or not. “I think it is premature to ask for a business license for a Airbnb that’s got a dirt floor in the kitchen and has a number of other deficiencies,” Tomson said.
O’Connor asked Tomson how he knew the condition of the building. “I’ve seen it,” Tomson said. “When your guys were working on it, they invited me to look at it.”
O’Connor said he was not aware that the crew had permission to allow people to enter the building. “I wasn’t aware they had permission to let people in,” O’Connor said.
Tomson said he wasn’t aware either, but he was allowed in anyway. “I didn’t know that either, but they did,” Tomson said.
O’Connor replied that it was his property. There was an audible murmur from the crowd following the comment with one member of the audience exclaiming, “Wow.” “But it’s still my house,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor in later comments to the Parsons Advocate stated he was concerned by the Mayor being inside his building without his knowledge. “The revelation that I am ‘one of those Airbnb people’ and that the Mayor was in my house without my knowing about it was upsetting to me on a personal level,” O’Connor said.
According to O’Connor the license was in anticipation of future renovation efforts. O’Connor stated that he wanted to see if he could get the license before committing more money and work into the property. O’Connor explained that he was still working on the property. “I’m still working on the property. That is why I am trying to get this thing so I can put some money into it,” O’Connor said.
When asked by Tomson why he was requesting the permit now, O’Connor stated there was ambiguity regarding the issue of one vs multiple licenses for those with multiple short term rental locations. “I thought we needed a license for each building,” O’Connor said. “But apparently, there’s people that have one license and multiple locations. So maybe I don’t need another license.”
Tomson said he thought one license per location was required. “We keep going around and around about this,” Tomson said. “And I think it is one license for each location. You can have it under one business.”
O’Connor said his concerns over the license arose from the Town’s “Temporary” Moratorium on short term rentals. According to O’Connor a four-month moratorium was passed in 2021 and is still in effect. Tomson and the Council stated that the moratorium alone would keep O’Connor from obtaining the license. A member of the council stated that the moratorium was in effect until June 30 of 2024. “Moratoriums are temporary,” O’Connor said. “They are not supposed to be in lieu of a zoning ordinance.”
Tomson replied to O’Connor’s debate on the moratorium. “We couldn’t do an ordinance as we learned from you and some of your friends while we continue to work on zoning,” Tomson said.
When asked by O’Connor what was meant by “you and your friends,” Tomson clarified it referred to local Airbnb owners. The audience murmured and an exclamation of, “Whoa,” by a woman in the audience could be heard following Tomson’s comment. “All of you Airbnb types,” Tomson said. “Because you guys are fighting the ordinance.”
According to Tomson, the Town has extended the moratorium while they work on a zoning ordinance for the Town. Tomson also acknowledged that the Town had not been able to have an ordinance on short term rentals and that is what prompted the work on a more comprehensive zoning ordinance. “We learned we couldn’t do an ordinance for short term rentals and then we said we would do the zoning ordinance that would encompass a number of things including short term rentals and every time we have been working on these things, we have extended the moratorium to allow us to have the time to do that.”
During the meeting, O’Connor referenced a letter written by the West Virginia Attorney General to the Pendleton County Prosecuting Attorney regarding the Attorney General’s opinion on the proper procedures regarding zoning moratoriums. “I just read a letter from the Attorney General of West Virginia that says you can’t do a moratorium when you don’t have zoning in place,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor agreed at the meeting that he would forward a copy of the Office of the Attorney General’s letter to the Town for review. A copy has also been supplied to the Parsons Advocate by O’Connor. “I will send you that letter,” O’Connor said. “I think the moratorium needs to be called off because you are not in compliance with West Virginia law.”
In the letter dated July 21, 2023 it is written, “While Pendleton County has the discretion whether or not to pursue a moratorium, the Legislature has set out the procedure if it chooses to do so. That statutory process requires Pendleton County to adopt a comprehensive plan, develop a zoning ordinance, and enact a zoning ordinance.” The six-page document goes into legal detail regarding Pendleton County and wind turbine construction.
According to O’Connor, the Town of Davis has no such ordinance in place, but has been working on one for some time. At the meeting, Tomson said he is still looking at how the Town can hold an election for the zoning ordinance. “I was hoping that maybe we could piggy back off of the primary that occurs in May,” Tomson said. “I’m not sure we can do that. I am still waiting for a legal decision from the Secretary of State’s Office. If not, we will have to do it a separate time which will take a lot of effort and money.”
O’Connor’s application was tabled by the Council. “I’m not going to deny it,” Tomson said. “I’m just going to table it. You have a lot of work to do on that house before it is inhabitable by human beings.”