Planning Board rejects town’s ordinances last week

In a surprise move last Tuesday, the 5-member Planning Board voted unanimously to not recommend the two proposed STR-related ordinances presented by the Town Board.

Instead, in a 4-1 vote, members agreed to tweak their original proposal which was the subject of the Feb. 24 public hearing but scrapped by the Town Board. Wendell Willard voted no.

The Planning Board is down to five members because both Brad Armstrong and Rick Trevathan resigned Monday, Aug. 1.

Armstrong said he is managing a health issue that has gotten worse over the past several months and he has also scaled back other volunteer commitments in town.

At the July 25 Planning Board meeting, Trevathan said in light of all the time and effort the board put into the ordinance last time, the Town Board’s actions toward the Planning Board’s work was offensive.

The mayor thanked Armstrong and Trevathan for their service. “Citizen service is critical to the function of local government, and these two individuals have been outstanding planning board members.” 

Town Planner Michael Mathis said he won’t seek new members until the STR issue is settled.

“I don’t want someone to come in the middle of this,” he said.

Town Attorney Jay Coward attended the meeting via zoom and answered several questions put forth by members.

According to Coward, whole house rentals in residential districts is not a commercial activity; that amortization is based on billboards and though the amortization of STRs has never been tested in the courts, the town’s new STR attorneys from Poyner and Spruill, who lost the Wilmington case, believe it could stand.

He also said the Wilmington case didn’t address amortization.

“There was no green light or red light regarding that,” he said.

Chris Wilkes suggested that the town was seeking to establish a precedent in the state for the amortization of STRs and Coward said that was a distinct possibility.

Wilkes said in all the cities he has researched – Charleston, New Orleans and others – STRs work because ordinances are enforced and fines are levied.

“I understand the dangers of a town that does nothing, but enforcement is how it works. I don’t know what the town is planning on spending to fight for this amortization precedent versus what it would cost to hire more enforcement personnel. If that’s the case, it’s not smart in the long run because there is still no plan.”

Nick McCall said amortizing billboard use was a lot different than amortizing a housing use because the initial investment is not comparable – that of a billboard investment is pennies compared to a house — so the suggested timeframe of two years, to recoup the investment doesn’t make sense.

Vice Chair Helene Siegel was concerned about leveling the playing field – acknowledging vested property rights and allowing others to get into the game — but said no one will like everything and will likely feel penalized in some way.

She initially suggested tweaking their original recommendation to allow STRs in R1 and R2 with a minimum stay of 14 days.

That motion died 3-2. Whatley, Wilkes and McCall voted against the motion. 

Chairman Darren Whatley said he can’t reconcile the fact that people made investments when told they could do something and suddenly, they can’t.

“We have to consider all the people and not just what our personal opinion is,” he said. “We have to compromise instead of all or nothing.”

In the end, the board agreed 4-1 to tweak its original ordinance and allow STRs in R1 and R2 for a minimum of seven consecutive days with the same renter and to give current STR owners one year to settle current contracts which may be less than seven days.

A majority of four was required to pass a motion due to the now 5-member board.

Willard reminded the board that the Town Board doesn’t have to accept their recommendation.

The board will meet again Tuesday, Aug. 9 to go over their amended version at 5:30 p.m. in the Community Building.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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