Citizens speak out in favor of STRs in R1

They ask commissioners to rescind hasty decision to ban STRs in R1 

Unlike most of the public comments made at the August Highlands Town Board meeting against short-term rentals in the R1 zone, at the Public Comment period of the September meeting, the board heard from the previously silent majority – those who want the decades-long practice of allowing STRs in the R1 district to stay intact.

Of the 11 who spoke Thursday night, only Cathy Henson, who has owned a home in the Satulah Mountain community since 2004, spoke against STRs in the R1 zone.

She said she thought zoning protected her and her husband from commercial activity in the R1 neighborhood.

“Commercial” was the key word that prompted the Town Board on Aug. 24 to declare STRs not allowed in the R1 zone and thereby banned them effective Jan. 3, 2022.

Henson said she has new neighbors every weekend during which dogs are left on screened-in porches to bark all day; where wedding guests party long after the wedding is over; where a birthday party for 60-year-old women enjoying wine play “Name that Tune” until 11 at night, but she has never called the police.

There are ordinances against such behavior – ordinances the police will enforce – but she said she doesn’t call because she doesn’t think that is the best use of the police’s time.

However, as Jerry Moore, a business owner for 12 years and an owner of two STRs in the R2 zone, said, the definition of the word “commercial” as it applies to the R1 zone is up for debate.

“The courts across the country have not defined STRs as commercial activity uniformly,” he said. “Furthermore, the current Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) doesn’t reference STRs anywhere. What really needs to be done is to look at the ordinance specifically to see what it says and doesn’t say. It is extremely vague. 

“In addition, the UDO does not specifically mention the renting of property in R1, whether it be for one day or one year.  The only limit for property in R1 is that it be used for ‘Household Living.’  Further, renting of property for one day or one year would not qualify as ‘Overnight Accommodations’ as set forth in Table 6.2 and further defined in Sections 6.5.9 and 6.5.10.

“If you want to pass a new ordinance there is a process. If you want to forbid STRs – and I’m not sure you can – there is a process. What was done a month ago is not the process that should have been taken. People have invested a lot of money with the current interpretation of the UDO and for us to change that interpretation with only limited outside review – with all due respect to Attorney Coward [Coward declared STRs a commercial use] – I think we need further review of the issue. 

“There are a lot of legal issues, and a lot of money is going to be spent on both sides to resolve these legal issues and we’re not even going to get into the economic impact until we can absolve these issues. 

“So, I think we need to step back. Get some solid interpretation of the current UDO before we move forward with this implementation date of Jan. 3,” he said. 

Every speaker addressed the substantial economic impact that banning STRs in the R1 zone will have on individuals, businesses and ultimately Highlands as a whole, but only Jennifer Huff of Save Highlands brought up the issue of property rights. Save Highlands is the organization raising money to fight the town in a court of law.

“There is the matter of property rights and whether the local government can tell any of us what we can and can’t do with our personal property,” she said. “Obviously, there are limits, and we seek to be good neighbors and citizens.  But as long as someone is not violating the rights of others or endangering them, a private property owner should be free to enjoy and use their property as they wish.”

“Many of the members of Save Highlands have invested substantially in their property to improve it. Never was there any indication from the town that STRs were illegal. In fact, many were told just the opposite. And the town continued to happily accept revenue from STRs for many years. 

“We have to work together to Save Highlands from local government infringing on our property rights and from suddenly changing its interpretation of zoning laws based on the complaints of a vocal minority. 

“Furthermore, evidence does not support the claim that STRs are a systemic problem or a blight on our community.  There have been recent claims that STRs are having a negative impact on neighbors. But prior to this unilateral decision to reinterpret the zoning regulations, the police department confirmed that there was not a record of any violations by STR owners.  Most vacation rental homeowners are responsible. 

“None of us want to rent to disruptive or thoughtless guests. A few incidents of poor behavior of unresponsiveness does not reflect the status of vacation rentals as a whole,” said Huff. 

The fact that Highlands has allowed and according to many encouraged STRs for 30-40 years was brought up more than once.

“When I moved here in 1990, I started doing STRs immediately and my mother- and father-in-law Tony and Isabel Chambers had already been doing them for decades before that,” said Jeannie Chambers of Chambers Realty & Vacation Rentals. “We rent residential homes, these are not businesses, they are not conducting business. They come and use the homes themselves a lot.”

Pete Lovelace said he began coming to Highlands with his parents 30 years ago at the age of eight and stayed in homes rented 7-30 days in the R1 zone – homes which would be classified as STRs today.

“So, I find it ironic that we are having this conversation after spending 30 years staying in these homes. As a homeowner now, it is one of my biggest concerns that for many years, the Real Estate agents have knowingly supported, endorsed and profited from the sale of homes and endorsing them as STRs. I experienced this personally not more than two years ago when we purchased a home. 

“So, I think there is a serious issue at hand; there has been an ongoing precedent set for this sort of investment for this type of use in homes and it has contributed to a great deal of people profiting and earning money off something that now all of a sudden has been deemed illegal activity. That feels very wrong to me.

“There are some knee-jerk reactions happening here that are not only going to hurt the economy but really expose some ignorance and knowing wrong-doing that has been going on for the past 30 years that I just don’t think we can immediately shut off,” he said.

Every speaker cited the amount of money people have invested using the current interpretation of the ordinance and the economic impact banning them in the largest residential district that of R1, will have on … everyone.

David Bee, owner of Highlands Vacation Rentals, has managed STRs since 2005 and manages about 90 properties – many of which are in the town limits. He said there is no way to completely fathom the economic impact the town’s recent decision will have on the town and its businesses, however, he shared some alarming statistics.

“My office will lose approximately $185,000 in revenue which represents one employee I can’t hire, and one employee I may have to release; my housekeeping staff will lose, $64,000; the Chamber of Commerce stands to lose $30,000 in occupancy taxes and the town $20,000 in sales tax; I purchase lunch every day for my entire staff from local restaurants totaling almost $19,000 a year; from Reeves Ace Hardware, I purchase everything from light bulbs to toilet seats to Weber grills and I buy gas in the town for my four company vehicles as do my employees, housekeepers and repair people. 

“For 2021, owners of properties that I manage in the town will receive about $606,000 in revenue. How much of that will be lost to the town because they will not now remodel, or purchase some necessary items from businesses in town?” he asked.

Like Lovelace, he said the economic impact is far too significant to have a knee-jerk reaction made without a rational discussion. 

“Please stop and consider all of the people who will suffer from this – from homeowners to the general workforce,” said Bee. “Rethink this decision before the detriment is insurmountable.”

Sean Doyle of the Webbmont community said the Chamber, Jennifer Huff and David Bee made good points and he, too, has researched the economic fallout of the board’s April 24 decision using statistics from U.S. Travel, Penn State University and Daniel Stine’s research on the impact of visitor spending on local economies.

“Using very conservative estimates. The Final Demand – which is money that stays in the town and doesn’t drive off the plateau or leave the county, including all STR rents and visitor spending – could mean $115 million pulled out of our economy on Jan. 3,” he said. “More importantly, it will be pulled out exclusively from our shops, grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants with that Final Demand number at around $19 million. That is money spent on Main Street and on activities. I can’t imagine Highlands if we punish the restaurant owners, the Main Street participants in commerce to the tune of $19 million just because the economic impact wasn’t considered.”

He suggested bringing in a third party, bringing in data about travel and tourism and the impact of visitor spending on local economies.

“This is a well-researched and stable idea that we can find answers to,” he said.

For some, besides the detriment to the immediate future, the future of children and grandchildren was mentioned.

Lynn Loosier from the Dog Mountain community whose family has been there for 60 years, said she understands both sides of the issue but believes something can be put in place, so everyone is happy.

“I understand that people living on Dog Mountain want their peace and quiet and I also understand those who want STRs. We have STRs because we are all getting older and can’t go up to Highlands. We have been able to have STRs and that’s what we want,” she said. “We want to pass this home down and keep it in the family. But if we have to stop STRs we won’t be able to keep the home. That’s upsetting to my family.”

Scott Vuncannon has been coming to Highlands for 25 years and now owns three homes – one on Foreman Road that burned down and will be rebuilt at some point and two on Raoul Road. One is being used as a STR and the other is being up fitted to the tune of $250,000 due to its dilapidated condition.

“Ideally, those homes would be rental homes until my children are capable of taking over the homes and keeping them up themselves,” he said. 

Stephanie McCall who owns a boutique in town, a construction business and several STRs said the effects of the town’s recent decision is far-reaching.

“Of the last 10 projects, seven have been remodels for STRs. But we have already had one client stop a project due to the town’s decision. They are just concerned,” she said.

As others claim, she said Realtors encouraged purchasing homes for the purpose of renting them as STRs.

“I recently purchased a house to rent as a STR and the real estate agent knew what my plans were and said it would be a perfect place for it,” she said.

McCall said her children would like to return to Highlands to live and work and shutting down the STR industry could affect that.

“I ask the town to think about what it is doing to our businesses and the future. It affects people like me who want their children to be able to come back here to live and make a living,” she said.

Like everyone else who spoke, Loosier said she does feel for the other people who have people staying up all hours of the night. 

“But I feel we can come together on both sides and maybe put something in place for these leases that will be more concrete regarding what tourists can and can’t do in these rental homes so we can protect the quiet times that people who live in their homes want to have. 

“But not allowing STRs will impact more than just the economy. It will impact Highlands. It will deplete what was always here. We don’t want STRs to go.

“I agree there needs to be some process in place to manage this, but to also respect the independence of the livelihoods of those who live in Highlands and call it home,” said Loosier.

Chambers said with the proposed ban, most of her clients won’t be able to come to what they have considered their home in the mountains for the past 35 years. 

“They come for two and three weeks at a time. That’s all they can do because they work off the mountain. They know the houses they go to; they don’t want to go somewhere else,” she said.

The overall consensus is that the Town Board jumped too quickly, and the issue could and should be resolved via other means, mainly with people from both sides coming together.

“I feel the opportunity to work together as property owners with the town could be an opportunity for everyone to come together with the right ordinance in place and the right penalties in place for those who do take advantage of the situation,” said Vuncannon. “I would appreciate it if you would give this serious thought and give everyone the opportunity to make their points heard.”

Huff said it’s important for the community to be at the table when decisions are made regarding the future of STRS, and the decision should be made based on analysis and careful study, and not on emotion and personal bias.  

“We want to have good relationships with our neighbors. Many of us already have those great relationships. We live here too,” she said.

Chambers said mediation is better than litigation.

“Mediation would be a whole lot better than litigation because it would keep money in everyone’s pockets. We aren’t expecting everything to go our way. It’s about give-and-take,” she said. “I realize someone who lives in a residential neighborhood doesn’t want to hear noise at 10 o’clock at night. I wouldn’t either. There are a lot of things we could do together. I ask you all to reconsider all the options. Don’t let this divide our town anymore. Enough damage has already been done. I think we can all work together on this.”

Highlands Chamber Executive Director Kaye McHan said since zoning practices are at the heart of the issue, a Special Committee on STR zoning should be formed consisting of 12 members named by the mayor to include representation from the Chamber, the principal groups favoring or opposing STRs in R1 districts, and other civic, business and neighborhood leaders with the Town Manager and Town Attorney serving as ex officio.

The mission could be to consider all points of view; to gather information, data, and analysis as needed to inform the committee’s work; to give the public opportunities for input through hearings and otherwise; to review STR zoning systems in other towns of similar size where the economy depends substantially on tourism; to consider all reasonable options and proposals; to develop a proposal to resolve the STR zoning issue in Highlands; and to submit that proposal to the Town Board for its consideration within 120 days.

She said ideally, the Town Board would provide the committee with staff assistance and some funding to help with data collection and other assistance to the committee.

But to succeed, she said the Special Committee needs to believe it is free to consider all options, that none are foreclosed, that they are being given a real chance to bring the committee and community together in the spirit of compromise to serve the interests of Highlands. 

“The best way the Town Board can give assurance to the Special Committee would be to rescind, at least temporarily, the decision to begin enforcement action of the existing ordinance on January 3, 2022,” said McHan. “If the Special Committee is not able to develop an acceptable solution for the overall STR zoning problem in 120 days, then the Town Board can set a new commencement date for enforcement of the ban if it wishes.”

The Town Board took the public comment discussion under advisement.

However, as per the agenda, commissioners went into Closed Session to discuss STRs under client/attorney privilege.

When the board emerged from Closed Session the following statement was issued.

“This week, the mayor signed a fee agreement retaining the services of attorney Craig Justus of the Van Winkle Law, Buck, Wall, Starnes & Davis Law Firm, concerning Short Term Rental/Lodging Ordinance Revisions. Mr. Justus will be reviewing and advising the Town Board on the Town of Highlands’ current residential ordinances relating to short-term rental, lodging and related matters. Mr. Justus will provide legal advice to the Town Board as the review of short-term rentals in residential zones moves forward. In the closed session of the September 16, 2021 Town Board meeting, Mr. Justus and town attorney, Jay Coward briefed the board and outlined possible procedures to address short-term rentals. The Board will continue to meet with these two attorneys as the process moves forward. No action was taken at this time.”

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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