The multi-faceted Highlands STR issue continues

In a special meeting June 30, the Highlands Town Board passed the Highlands Comprehensive Community Plan in a 4 to 1 vote.

Under state mandate municipalities with zoning had to approve a Comp Plan by July 1, 2022 or jeopardize their ability to enforce current zoning ordinances.

The Comp Plan is not a policy or regulatory plan. Here in Highlands, that document is the Unified Development Code (UDO). 

The Comp Plan is simply a road map of suggestions regarding the future of Highlands which was based on input from the community.

However, at the June 30 meeting Commissioner Marc Hehn requested some language regarding short-term rentals (STRs) in the Comp Plan to be addressed by Attorney Hagemann with Poyner Spruill who had zoomed in. 

Since the Comp Plan isn’t the place for specifics, and also because the STR issue and ordinance language has not been finalized, his request went unanswered. Hence, he voted against the Plan.

Attorney Hagemann was there to get official permission to request Attorney Craig Justus be released as Highlands’ attorney in its STR legal battle with Save Highlands, which he received.

Meanwhile, between the time the town’s STR ordinance was passed and subsequently named null and void due to it being incorrectly advertised and now, it’s possible some of the language in that fated ordinance will be amended – which could possibly stave off a costly legal battle. 

At the June 30 meeting, Mayor Pat Taylor announced another special meeting set for tonight, July 14 at 6 p.m. in the Community Building – “to review proposed amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) regarding STRs.” 

Those proposed amendments will then be sent to the Planning Board for review and recommendation at its July 25 meeting.

Once the Planning Board’s recommendations are sent to the Town Board and if the Town Board accepts them, a Public Hearing will be set for the STR amendments to the UDO. 

As per the mayor’s column in the July 7 edition, it’s looking like “compromise” might be sought.

“Some folks have told me that a compromise needs to be found concerning STRs. So far, there has been criticism from all sides of the issue directed toward town commissioners. What does the Save Highlands group see as a compromise position that the town should approve? What is the position of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition?” asked the mayor.

Taylor said as mayor he is open to receiving proposed compromises but wants those compromises to be shared in public view.

In her letter-to-the-editor in today’s issue, Bowery resident Lila Howland who is a member of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition but who wrote as a full-time resident and not for the coalition suggested no compromise is needed.

“My compromise would be to honor the purpose and intent of the UDO developed years ago which was to set aside zones that would be commerce free, and that includes free from renting out overnight accommodations but welcoming of long-term rentals,” she wrote. 

However, in her letter Jennifer Huff of Save Highlands said “Save Highlands remains ready and willing to negotiate the terms of the amendment with any party who extends the invitation.”  

Mirroring what has become a battle cry for the Coalition, Howland went on to say that “tourists [those who stay in STRs and hotels] don’t support non-profit organizations and they don’t care where the workers live. They don’t volunteer at the food bank or attend chamber music.”

In a communication with Cathy Henson, president of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition she agreed saying “there is also a qualitative difference between homeowners (and long term renters) and nightly hotels guests renting STRs. The former are members of the community; the latter are not. The former donate to local nonprofits and volunteer with local organizations; the latter do not. The former are invested in each other and the Town, the latter are not.” 

During this almost year-long discussion it has been noted by those in support of STRs, that tourists spend money in Highlands’ shops, restaurants and area venues, thereby supporting Highlands’ economy through sales tax and room tax which ensures job security for Highlands workers including the livelihood of housecleaners, landscapers, handymen and more. 

Meanwhile, thinking the June 30 special meeting might include a STR discussion, during the public comment period, some people spoke out about STRs.

Ellie Hogan, a Realtor, said she was against STRs in residential zones because she isn’t happy with the situation that has developed near her property and because the properties of those who are allowed to continue STRs in R1 will be more valuable than hers.

David Bee, with Highlands Vacation Rentals and Save Highlands, also spoke saying Save Highlands continues to fight for the rights of all STR owners and managers and all Highlanders, who he said have shown overwhelming support for short-term rentals.

Though general in nature, he said verbiage in the Comp Plan says Highlands should “encourage lodging and tourism-related rentals while limiting any negative impact on existing residents and businesses; monitor and mitigate the impact of STRs on the Highlands community.”

He said the town has nuisance ordinances in place to monitor, noise, parking, and trash. 

“Save Highlands is deeply invested in protecting the individual property rights that Highlanders have always enjoyed, and it urges the Town to honor these rights, and to consider the widespread support of STRs and their role in sustaining the Highlands economy,” he said.

Realtor Pat Allen also suggested the town enforce the nuisance regulations it already has in place and urged the “silent majority” to turn out and speak up.

Letters-to-the-editor in today’s edition reflect both sides of the story.

In her letter, Howland made it clear that she considers STRs a commercial enterprise, especially since AirBnB is used in many cases.

However, it should be noted that AirBnB is simply a marketplace akin to the vacation rental marketplaces that have existed in Highlands for 40 years as components of area real estate companies.

“Airbnb, Inc. is an American company that operates an online marketplace for lodging, primarily homestays for vacation rentals, and tourism activities,” reads its website.

Happily, “party houses” which have caused much of the problem in Highlands and nationwide are specifically prohibited by AirBnB now that it has officially codified its “Party Ban” as of June 28, 2022.

“In August 2020 we announced a temporary ban on all parties and events in listings globally,” states AirBnB. The temporary ban has proved effective, and so we have officially codified the ban as our policy.”

According to STR agencies in Highlands “party house” aren’t knowingly allow here, either.

The definition of Residential zones is at the crux of the STR issue in Highlands and it has been hotly debated. 

Highlands has three residential zones which are very different from each other in allowed uses, location, and lot sizes.

As per the codified UDO the definition of Residential is: Buildings for residential use, such as attached and detached single-family dwellings, apartment complexes, condominiums, townhouses, cottages, etc., together with their associated outbuildings, such as garages, storage buildings, gazebos, etc., and including customary incidental home occupations.” 

The R-1 Residential District is exclusively a low-density residential district for single-family dwellings with customary accessory outbuildings, together with such other related uses which are of a residential character or contribute to the residential character of the district. Those lot sizes are a minimum of .75 acres.

The R-2 Residential District is a medium-density residential district for single-family dwellings, with customary accessory outbuildings, including manufactured homes and home occupations, together with such other related uses which are of a residential character or contribute to the residential character of the district. Tourist homes and private schools are permitted as special uses. The minimum lot size in R2 is .50 acres.

R3 is a multi-housing area where apartment and condominium buildings are allowed.

Obviously, those against STRs consider them commercial uses – not home occupations or residential in nature – whereas those for STRs see STRs as “other related uses which are of a residential character,” because people are living, eating, and sleeping in the homes even if for a short-term basis.

In his letter in today’s issue, Tucker Chambers of Chambers Realty & Vacation Rentals, points out numerous questionable aspects of the STR-related ordinance the town passed erroneously at the May Town Board meeting.

He suggested HOAs and POAs in troubled areas could have taken care of many of the complaints, and that the permitting/registration process in the town’s May ordinance was over the top.

“The new registration and permitting process calls for lots of leg work for the property owner. Some of the information is easily obtained from the county records, but it still takes time. Other things require statements from licensed plumbers and other professionals, who are all pretty busy. Their statements aren’t free, and they shouldn’t be free, because it is taking their time to make the service call to check on septic systems and sewer connections,” he wrote. “Furthermore, if we’re going to make properties who want to rent have these statements, all properties should have them. It is not fair to single one from the other. Just because someone does not rent doesn’t mean they don’t overuse their existing wastewater system.”

At tonight’s meeting, Attorney Bob Hagemann will present draft proposals. The board may make final adjustments to the drafts during this period. There will be no public comment tonight.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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