STRs won’t be amortized … for now

At the September Town Board meeting, much to everyone’s surprise, the amortization of existing STRs in R1 and R2 was no longer on the table.

The ordinance passed 4-1 with Commissioner Marc Hehn the dissenting vote. He said he hadn’t had enough time to go over the new proposal which was sent to everyone at 5 p.m., prior to the 7 pm meeting.

Though commissioners did an “about face” regarding amortization, no new STRs are allowed in the R1 and R2 zones as of Sept. 15, 2022.

Commissioner Hehn suggested considering a cap on the number of existing STRs allowed in R1 and R2 or perhaps designating the number of feet allowed between STRs.

Commissioner Amy Patterson said by not allowing new STRs in R1 and R2 the town was in a sense capping the number.

Taken out of the Sept. 8 work session ordinance were several “Whereas components” in the preamble.

Those deletions included everything relating to amortization for STRs but did include a new “Whereas” saying the Town of Highlands may, in the future, consider amortization of nonconforming STRs within the Town’s residential districts. 

“Our attorneys recommended to not address the issue of amortization at the Sept. 15 Town Board meeting. They requested time to do further research and analysis,” said Mayor Pat Taylor. “The board will review the legal advice from our attorneys at a later date in order to make a final decision on whether to implement a period of amortization for zones R1 and R2.”

Commissioner Amy Patterson said even if amortization is allowed, its implementation would be years away.

There is talk of the NC legislature discussing the issue sometime in 2023.

After the meeting, Mayor Taylor said if the state rules against amortization, then the board will follow the law.

“We were encouraged to see the Town recognize our grandfathered property rights. We are cautiously optimistic that these matters related to short-term rental regulations may be coming to an end. We will continue to monitor how this plays out, but we are hoping we can all get back to our lives,” said Jennifer Huff with SAVE Highlands..

The Highlands Neighborhood Coalition is glad commissioners amended the zoning ordinance to ban any new STRs in neighborhoods.  

“The decision means that neighborhoods in zoning districts R1 and R2 are protected from any further expansion of STRs. The Coalition views the ordinance that was passed Thursday night as a great first step,” said Cathy Henson, president of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition. 

The amended ordinance defines STRs as non-conforming uses and the rental of a residential dwelling unit, for compensation, for a period of less than 30 consecutive days. The term doesn’t include hotels, motels or tourist homes.

Since STRs are now non-conforming uses the use isn’t allowed to be intensified – enlarged, expanded or changed into another nonconforming use. Repairs and reconstructions can be made, however.

If the STR use stops for 12 months, it cannot be re-established unless the use is seasonal and reopened within a 12-month period.

Henson, said the Coalition will be advocating for the town to act sooner than later to eliminate STRs through amortization.

Rebecca Badgett with the UNC School of Government said amortization has long been upheld as a regulatory tool to phase out certain non-conformities. But its initial purpose wasn’t specifically for STRs.

“Its purpose is to help cushion the burden of a new land-use regulation,” she said.

In 2021, the village of Pinehurst, NC, voted 3-2 not to request the legislature to consider a “local” amortization law.

Evidently, state legislators are apt to pursue local laws for a particular town or city only if there is no controversy involved or if the vote is unanimous.

Like Highlands, Southport, NC has grandfathered all existing STRs, and prohibited new ones in certain zoning districts.

Only Chapel Hill has amortized existing STRs for a period of 18 months effective Dec. 23, 2022.

This may or may not be challenged in court.

All verbiage referencing “Homestays” was eliminated from the Sept. 8 worksession ordinance and replaced with “Tourist Homes.” 

Unlike STRs, Tourist Homes aren’t a non-conforming use. Nor are they considered STRs.

Tourist home: A building or part thereof, not including a motel, or hotel, or short-term rental, where sleeping accommodations or lodging of not more than four (4) bedrooms are provided to guests paying compensation, where the owner, operator or manager also stays on the same parcel during any period of guest occupancy. This term includes; bed and breakfast homes, inns, or rooming or boarding houses.

New and existing Tourist Homes aren’t allowed in R1 but they are allowed in R2 with a Special Use Permit (SUP).

To qualify for a SUP: 

  • The use (Tourist Home) will not materially endanger the public health or safety if located where proposed and developed according to the plan as submitted and approved; 
  • The use meets all required conditions and specifications; 
  • The use will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting property or, in the alternative, the use is a public necessity; and 
  • The location and character of use, as developed according to the plan as submitted and approved, will be in harmony with the area in which it is to be located and in general conformity with the plan of development of the town and its environs.

By not allowing new STRs in R1 and R2, the mayor said the board has stopped the proliferation of STRs in R1 and R2.  

“Included was a provision that those people who are operating STRs in R1 and R2 on and before September 15, 2022 can continue to do so for now. No permits are required,” he said.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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