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Airbnb confronted with growing pains in Niagara Falls

NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Falls Council Member Kristen Grandinetti was trying to follow the rules and “jump through the hoops” when she appeared before the Planning Board Wednesday, requesting that a room in her home be registered as a bed and breakfast.

Grandinetti said her participation in the Airbnb home-sharing service recently came to light when a building inspector singled her out and forced to register as a bed and breakfast. The attention was “because of who I am,” she told planners, adding that she had received zoning board approval last week.

Following a lengthy discussion, the planners failed to put the motion on the table. But after Grandinetti and reporters left the meeting, the board gave conditional approval to the bed-and-breakfast request – as well as another traditional bed and breakfast proposed by Merle Smouse at 741 Park Place. Both proposals will be required to obtain variances for parking.

Just like Uber, Lyft and other bastions of the gig economy, the ability to govern what is already off and running in the economy has become a problem for cities.

Airbnb, the home-sharing service app for sharing a room, apartment or even using a couch, boasts nearly 300 homes registered in Niagara Falls alone, though a check determined some were located across the border in Ontario.

And while the Planning Board debated if Grandinetti’s driveway could accommodate parking, listings for an Airbnb home on Ferry Avenue in Niagara Falls noted it was OK to park on the lawn.

In the Airbnb issue, City Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis cautioned the board to be reasonable instead of sticking to the letter of the law.

“Are we following the letter of the law because that is what we are going to do no matter what? We are going to have far fewer approvals coming before this board because most people can’t comply,” said DeSantis.

Grandinetti said she was required to register as a bed and breakfast because the city’s current ordinance does not cover what she does.

“I invite you all to come and see the room and read the guest log and how many women that are international travelers who feel safe because they are staying in a home with a respected member of the community,” Grandinetti said.

Because of concerns over unregulated rooms and apartments, Airbnb has already started working with communities to collect bed taxes and set up community-specific rules.

Grandinetti, who previously worked in the hospitality industry for 25 years, urged the Planning Board to consider its regulations so those who want to legally operate an Airbnb can do so.

DeSantis said a committee, which includes Planning Board members, is being organized to address the ordinance.

“Some people are always going to skirt the law and won’t comply, but the bulk of people want to follow the rules and we shouldn’t make it difficult for them,” DeSantis said.

Added Grandinetti: “We are one of the biggest destinations in the world, yet we are trying to stop people from showcasing the city.”