No vacancy for bed-and-breakfasts

City looks to simplify its codes to increase lodging options in town

City officials are looking for ways to address issues that have prevented some prospective bed-and-breakfast owners from opening in Georgetown.

At the Nov. 12 City Council workshop, Georgetown Historic Planner Matt Synatschk proposed ways to make it easier for startup B&B owners to open a business based on feedback from a public workshop in September.

Synatschk proposed incentives, such as city grants, to help with startup costs related to renovating historic buildings and a tiered safety specification system based on the number of guest rooms that could include adopting local amendments to fire and building codes.

By simplifying the codes and assisting with the costs of starting a B&B, the city hopes to increase lodging options to help attract tourists to the city, Synatschk said.

Benefits of B&Bs

B&B lodging options are part of what attracts heritage tourists, or visitors who seek to immerse themselves in the local culture, Synatschk said.

Heritage tourists, according to The National Trust for Historic Preservation, travel to "experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past" and may aim to visit cultural, historic and natural resources.

The NTHP also reports that studies have shown heritage travelers stay longer and spend more money at local businesses than other kinds of travelers.

Besides bringing in more profits for small-business owners, the city would also increase the amount of Hotel Occupancy Taxes generated with more B&Bs, Synatschk said.

In a 2012 retreat, City Council outlined several goals for the city, including making it a signature destination for residents and visitors such as heritage tourists, Synatschk said.

The abundance of art galleries, weekend festivals and local entertainment lay the groundwork for making Georgetown a signature destination and also attracting heritage tourists who would make use of B&Bs, Synatschk said.

"You have bed-and-breakfasts for travelers who don't want to stay in hotels," he said. "They want to be immersed in the local experience."

Current standards and challenges

According to the city's unified development code, or UDC, a B&B may be run in neighborhood commercial, local commercial and mixed-use downtown districts with limitations or within agricultural or residential districts with a special use permit.

B&Bs are also limited to eight guest rooms, must not allow parking in the front yard and require the operator to be a full-time resident of the home, according to the UDC.

The 2003 international building and fire codes under which the city operates, however, limit B&Bs to five rooms. Local amendments allowed the UDC to permit eight rooms and could be used to allow the proposed tiered system.

Synatschk suggested a tiered system based on one used in Sedona, Ariz., a city with more than 30 B&Bs. Under it, a sprinkler system, fire detection and other safety requirements would be dependent on the number of rooms offered in a B&B.

Requirements in Georgetown's current fire code mandate the same sprinkler and fire safety standards for a two-room B&B as a five-room B&B.

Local amendments to the UDC and international codes could allow for partial sprinkler systems and other reductions of life safety codes.

"I liked that we're [looking at] distinguishing between the sizes of facilities and implementing requirements that would be more in line," Councilwoman Patty Eason said.

Both Eason and Councilwoman Rachael Jonrowe's districts include parts of the city's historic district, where B&Bs might be established. Each were concerned that lowering fire standards with a local amendment would increase home insurance premiums for neighbors living near a residential B&B.

"I think it's good for Georgetown to have a high bar when it comes to development standards, but we don't want to place it so high it's impossible for business owners to get a project off the ground," Jonrowe said.

Retrofitting troubles

Phillip Brown and his wife experienced firsthand the financial challenges Georgetown's fire codes present in transforming a historic home into a B&B.

"We got our special use permit in April of 2012. We sailed through all the hearings with no opposition [from] planning and zoning, [Historic and Architectural Review Commission or] City Council," Brown said. "Then we hit this wall with code requirements that didn't make any business sense to us."

Brown said it could have cost up to $20,000 to install the required sprinkler system in the house, which was going to feature two guest rooms. Adding a water storage tank could have increased the cost because of the tank itself and unforeseen issues with renovating an older building, he said.

"It would have cost as much to make the house fire code–compliant with one guest room as with four," Brown said. "We had a budget for equipping the house. The fire code compliance as the city interpreted it would have easily doubled our startup costs."

Brown said if regulations were relaxed, he would consider opening a B&B from his home again but with a lot of contemplation.

Friendly competition

In the past, Georgetown had several B&B establishments in the city. Over time, owners retired from the business or moved, leaving the buildings to be bought as residences only.

San Gabriel House Bed & Breakfast is the only B&B operating within the city limits. A second, Ranch House Bed & Breakfast, is located in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Dee Rapp and her husband bought the San Gabriel House on University Avenue in 2005 after its previous owners had renovated the home into a six-room B&B.

"I understand it's concerning that there's only one B&B in Georgetown, but I look at it as a very natural ebb and flow," Rapp said. "It's just coincidence because B&B owners tend to be slightly older couples, and it's a high-demand business."

B&Bs are a niche business, Rapp said, in which owners focus less on competing and more on helping one another out. She said having more B&Bs would benefit the city as well as her business.

"We're all for more B&Bs. They are charming. They are comfortable. They reflect life in Georgetown," she said. "B&B owners tend to hang together, support each other and pass the referrals on. We do everything we can to keep the business in Georgetown."