STRs are now on Town Board’s plate

Monday night, the Planning Board put the finishing touches on its Unified Development Code amendments in regards to short-term rentals. The ball is now in the Town Board’s court and will be reviewed at a special meeting at 5 p.m. on Feb. 1.

The agenda for Tuesday’s Special Meeting begins with a closed session for an update on the Huff lawsuit.

As Planning Board Chairman Brad Armstrong has said from the start, the work the Planning Board was doing was for the future. Nothing it is recommending to the Town Board regarding amended uses or amendments to the UDO will have anything to do with properties which are currently being used as STRs and as such are grandfathered in.

“We are looking toward the future and the legal ramifications of vested or grandfathered interests are not our concern,” he said.

After hearing numerous comments from those for and against STRs during the public comment period, the board discussed uses in the R2 district – mainly regarding Transient Dwelling Lodging which is defined as the entire unit being rented or occupied by paying guests for a period less than seven consecutive days. 

At the close of the last work session on January 11, members were stymied about whether to require a Special Use Permit (SUP) for Transient Lodging in the R2 district as originally drafted, or to make it a Limited Use or to disallow Transient Lodging in R2 all together.

Though still a mechanism through the Zoning Board of Adjustment for variances, several years ago, the town did away with the need for SUPs for every little thing involving properties because SUPs require legal postings and a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment which is a quasi-judicial board.

Now, if owners meet zoning and property requirements and stipulations, SUPs are no longer required for additions to homes or businesses (when a variance isn’t required) – those issues are now being handled by planning department staff.

Therefore, the Planning Board was urged to consider Limited uses in the R2 zone instead of requiring a SUP.

Then the issue came down to figuring out what the criteria would be to allow Limited Transient Lodging in the R2 district.

Helene Siegel said she noticed disparities in the R2 zone in that some R2 properties appearred to be in completely residential areas while other R2 properties were along state and federal roads or near commercial businesses like on Poplar, Hickory, 5th and 4th streets and along US 64 east and other highways.

In the end, the board decided to allow Transient Lodging in the R2 district on a Limited basis if the property wasn’t in a solely residential area. However, since the R2 zone was initiated so that occupants could have soft home businesses in the first place, it’s not clear how the “soley residential criteria” will work in the end.

Both Whole House Rentals (WHSTR) and Tourist Homes will be allowed in R1 and R2 for a minimum of two weeks at a time with Transient Lodging not allowed in R1 but allowed on a Limited basis in R2.

WHSTRs are defined as a dwelling whereby the entire unit is rented for a period of 7-30 consecutive days.

Tourist Homes are defined as a building or part of a building where not more than four bedrooms are rented and where the owner of the home stays on the property with the guests, like a bed and breakfast.

Tourist Homes will be allowed in R1 and R2 but limited to two bedrooms in R1 and four bedrooms in R2.

Other noted issues are onsite parking of one car per bedroom, a fire safety inspection, owner or operator contact information and the suspension of a WHSTR owners’ rights for six months if three violations are accumulated within a 12-month period. 

Violations would be cited if town ordinances regarding parking, noise, or garbage were disregarded.

Public comment circulated among those for and against STRs.

Lila Howland said in August the town attorney clearly stated that the current UDO prohibits STRs in the R1 district; that 62% of those who filled out the Community Plan survey said STRs were a problem; that the three candidates who won the election clearly opposed STRs in residential neighborhoods which equals a clear and compelling mandate to prohibit them in residential neighborhoods.

“So far, the Planning Board seems to have ignored this mandate,” she said. “There has been no public support to open up all Highlands’ neighborhoods to Tourist Homes as your current proposal does. There has been no public support to open all Highlands’ neighborhoods to whole house short-term rentals regardless of the durations which your current proposal does.”

She suggested the Planning Board simply defer the subject to the Town Board rather than passing on its recommendations.

Her husband Slocum said they live in a R1 district where commercial activity isn’t allowed and STRs are a commercial activity because money exchanges hands.

However, David Bee said according to state statute STRs aren’t a commercial use.

“If it is, why isn’t any rental commercial use? Whether it’s three nights or 365 nights, if getting money, what’s the difference?” he asked.

There was a lot of talk about rental properties being in the R1 and R2 districts being owned by LLCs. Those against STRs suggested that LLCs mean business entities are renting the homes which would make it a commercial enterprise.

But those who have been representing STR and Vacation Rental owners for decades said LLCs are also formed because the homes belong to several people in their families and not because they consider their home use a business.

A member of the Save Highlands group said the STR issue is a legal rights issue as outlined in the NC Vacation Rental Act as well as a vested right issue as outlined in NC statutes. She also said as of July 1, 2019, no city or county can adopt an order requiring owners of STRs to obtain a permit to rent their property.

But as part of the Planning Board’s recommendations, owners of STRs would require a zoning certificate and those who have rented would have to prove such with tax records, written leases or other proof that they are vested. 

Needed for a zoning certificate is the address of the property, name and contact information of the owner and/or manager, a site plan showing off-street parking spaces, information on the number of bedrooms for rent, a fire safety inspection, a copy of a standard rental agreement, and acknowledgement that the applicant is aware of the occupancy restrictions on the property.

The Town Board isn’t obligated to adopt the Planning Board’s recommendations.              

 By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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