The seven Town Board candidates line up for Q&A number 3

Running for re-election Tuesday, Nov. 5 are Commissioners, John Dotson, Eric Pierson and Brian Stiehler. Opposing them are Marc Hehn, Nick McCall, Michael Rogers and Hank Ross.

Each candidate has been asked to answer six questions. This week we will feature answers to Question 3 by the candidates in alphabetical order.

Question 3: 

Should the Town of Highlands regulate VRBO, AirBnB and vacation rental accommodation industry? 

John Dotson

Short Term Rentals or Vacation Rentals as the State of North Carolina defines them, have been around in Highlands for decades. Years ago, when there were more “corporate/annual” vacations, people came to Highlands and rented for the full duration of their allotted time – still usually less than the 90 days defined by the State of North Carolina.

These days, “annual leave” is often broken up into smaller time frames due to factors far to numerous to list – including employers not offering defined annual leave as part of their employment package. Times have also changed with regard to “weekend getaways” and the close proximity of large population centers only a few hours away. For better or worse, we are a more mobile society.

What we are experiencing with the growth of short term rentals (Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, etc) is a direct reflection of a couple of major things, #1, the increased cost in maintaining a home in Highlands, such as higher taxes and higher utilities and #2 the demand for accommodations which has been fueled by organizations and media promoting Highlands. Not to be overlooked is the number of homes and properties that have been converted to employee housing.

The North Carolina Vacation Rental Act (Chapter 42A NC General Statutes) has some very definite requirements that must be followed by EVERYONE who hosts AND their guests, under the definition of a Vacation Rental. The #1 requirement of Landlords is that they “Comply with all current applicable building and housing codes to the extent required by the operation of the codes.” 

In Highlands, this language seems to apply to certain zoning districts – a number of which would be disallowed from using homes in those districts for short term rentals.

As Town Commissioners, we need take a long, hard look at the verbiage in our UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) to ensure that we are honoring not only the personal property rights of all landowners but also our zoning ordinances.

We can’t afford to lose the things that have made Highlands the enjoyable place that people not only want to visit, but also live. 

Marc Hehn

It appears the Town needs to at least know where the VRBO and AirBnB units are in order to receive the proper Occupancy Room Taxes. In my neighborhood we have several VRBO’s. I have an excellent relationship with the property owners and they have actually asked me to let them know if there is a problem. We have had one problem; and, I was able to solve the issue through polite conversation with the owner.

Nick McCall

This question has risen to the forefront out of nowhere it seems. It is a controversial issue for good reason as it calls for telling property owners what they can and cannot do with their own property. Since I have never been one for disguising my words or being vague, let me say that I do not in any way desire for government at any level to enact laws that aim to dictate what should or should not be done. 

When it comes to personal property rights, as this is one of the founding principles of our nation more less this town, for me in any way to tell someone else what they should be allowed to do inside their own home which they spent their own hard earned money on would be hypocritical, as I personally don’t want that done to me, and honestly neither do any of you. 

I believe that the town already has in place ordinances such as the noise ordinance that can be used to control any problems that arise. I also believe that the rental sector does a good job of policing within itself. The state of North Carolina has also passed laws regarding this issue and going against any of these laws potentially sets up legal issues for the town down the road. 

The existence of HOA’s can help to regulate what happens inside neighborhoods and communities, but I do not believe the town government should get involved.

Eric Pierson

Regulation of VRBO, AirBnB, etc., is a hot topic all across the country right now. As such, this is already being discussed here in town. It was an item at our last Town Board meeting, and we garnered some information from local agents that manage such types of properties and from other citizens that were in the audience. 

As such, the Land Use Committee was tasked to starting discussions about what, if anything, the town might do. I think around here, local agents and responsible owners do a fairly good job of maintaining such properties in a professional way. Of course, as with most things, there have been a couple instances that have arisen that brought concern to neighbors of such properties. This is partly why the town is getting involved in this issue. 

As I said, the Land Use Committee is looking at this and will be sitting down with local agents, homeowners and concerned residents in order to get a better understanding on how things are operated, find out what problems neighbors are having, and such to see if there is anything that the Town might need to regulate for the betterment of the whole community.

Michael Rogers

No. Highlands has been a vacation rental area for years. It is not up to the town to regulate who can and can’t rent their house. I understand the concern some people have as our neighborhoods are changing but regulations are not the answer. 

Hank Ross

The short-term rental market in Highlands is sizable and growth will likely continue. Because of this trend, it understandably has become a concern to our full-time and seasonal residents. Short-term rental homeowners should be required to get a business license for this type rental much like the requirements for bed and breakfast businesses. 

A business license would improve the town’s ability to enforce current nuisance laws and codes such as noise and the number of persons allowed in the residence. A requirement should be added for rental homes to purchase bear-resistant garbage containers to alleviate the trash problems that are frequent at rental homes since visitors often do not realize the bear/trash situation. 

In addition, a business license will provide a database for Macon County’s enforcement of occupancy tax collection and will give town planners information for any needed changes to zoning and land use planning.

By providing a minimum of restrictions, the business license solution still provides a good balance of individual property rights and will provide better protection for our residential neighborhoods. Property Owners Associations (POA’s) can provide additional restrictions on short term rentals. In Highlands, POA restrictions on length of stay currently exist and can be an option for neighborhoods.

Brian Stiehler

As technology evolved, it ushered in new ways of renting properties by way of AirBnB and VRBO. While these websites can be attractive for those with rental properties, they do open the door for some very serious unintended consequences. 

I am very much in favor of studying this new trend in order to avoid potential problems. I think these rentals do create safety and security concerns in our neighborhoods. Other aspects of it like occupancy levels, needs to be strictly enforced. It simply isn’t fair to folks living in neighborhoods who are having to deal with the potential noise, parking issues, irresponsible trash disposal etc., that arise when a home exceeds its occupancy limits. 

The safety issues and environmental issues that stem from that are another issue. Furthermore, I really question what this is doing to our neighborhoods. As a resident of Mirror Lake, it feels like every house that goes on the market is being purchased and turned into a short-term rental. I understand and agree with property rights, but I am not overly enthused about losing real neighbors who have a vested interest in our neighborhoods to having new temporary neighbors each week that don’t understand our way of life. It takes something that we all appreciate and value and commercializes it. 

In the past year, I have been contacted on a number of occasions by residents who have had serious and justifiable complaints against short-term renters. At the very least, those who rent their homes must be accountable for their renters and available to be on site should an issue arise. There are a number of things that we can do and I fully support pursuing this issue to protect local residents.

  • Next week: Should the Town of Highlands regulate or allow Food Trucks other than just for the Highlands Food & Wine Festival Food Truck event? 

By Kim Lewicki,Highlands Newspaper

One thought on “The seven Town Board candidates line up for Q&A number 3

  1. A short term rental is a “business”. If one does not believe that, ask the “infamous IRS” as I believe that rental income has to be reported, expenses can be deducted, and the property can also be depreciated.

    Having renters identify themselves as a business will facilitate the pending question before the Land Use Committee of identifying exactly how big this market/thing is out there, and also provide a basis for collecting occupancy taxes (why do “Bed & Breakfasts”, motels, etc have to pay when individual renters do not…what’s fair?).

    Also was mentioned – “Not to be overlooked is the number of homes and properties that have been converted to employee housing.” – this needs to be addressed especially where multiple family units are involved…and how is this to be enforced?

    Looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Land Use Committee study.

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