Lehigh Valley

Bethlehem planners table opinion on definition of a hotel

Debate in response to Airbnb surfacing in the city

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The Bethlehem Planning Commission on Thursday decided to hold off on a decision as to what exactly defines a hotel in the city.

The debate is in response to the surfacing this summer of downtown Bethlehem Airbnb offerings in more desirable residential downtown districts whereby a homeowner can almost instantly turn their home into a hotel.

Planners said they needed more time to consult with one another, their solicitor and city Planning Director Darlene Heller before they formulate a proper recommendation, which will then be taken under advisement by city council.

The city currently defines a hotel as a building or group of buildings with a central office or front desk that contains seven or more rooms rented to visitors. The proposed amendment reduces the seven rooms down to two.

Allentown attorney Tim Stevens represents 35 Bethlehem homeowners opposed to the Airbnbs or Air Bed and Breakfasts, including Hotel Bethlehem owner Bruce Haines. Haines argued in support of dropping the number of hotel rooms to one because a homeowner can rent out their entire home for a weekend as long as it lies in a commercial rather than a residential zone.

Area residents living in neighborhoods featuring Airbnbs have voiced their concerns about drunken guests disturbing the peace, littering and gobbling up parking spaces.

Haines commented the planners have overlooked the potential to rent one apartment in a building or a whole house as long as it is in a commercial district.

He said the Airbnb model has evolved in recent years to one where investors buy homes in desirable neighborhoods and rent out rooms through an online reservation program.

Stevens explained the need is to create a zoning change that allows an Airbnb to operate in a commercial district and classify it as a hotel. He advocates a hotel amendment consistent with residential zoning requirements.

Haines added that redefining hotels in Bethlehem affords the city the opportunity to identify the Airbnbs and collect the appropriate taxes from them such as the hotel tax used to promote tourism and economic development.

Planning commissioners did agree to recommend zoning changes clarifying first floor uses in commercial downtown districts, promoting retailers, restaurants and adding personal services at ground level storefronts. In addition, they agreed to recommend a zoning ordinance amendment increasing the maximum residential building coverage in designated residential districts.

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