By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper
The short-term rental issue was brought to the forefront on Jan. 19 when Cathy Henson, president of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition, spoke during the public comment period.
Except for the closed session items during the December and January Town Board meetings, very little has been said since the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) was amended to adjust for existing STRs as of Sept. 15, 2022.
Henson suggested the town make available to the public the STR data that the town has obtained through the use of the Granicus software it uses to keep track of STRs in Highlands.
Granicus helps governmental entities monitor STR compliance which in turn helps them enforce ordinances.
According to Granicus, with the increase of short-term vacation rentals, such as those advertised on Airbnb and VRBO, many communities are struggling to define and enforce regulations that preserve community character and keep communities safe while ensuring revenue collection.
Using Granicus, properties for rent can be found, hosts can be educated on how to stay compliant and though Highlands isn’t a beneficiary of the room tax, it will show how much room tax is or should be collected.
“By now, the town should have some fairly accurate data on the number and location of STRs in Highlands,” read Henson from a prepared statement. “Making this data available to the public, services several purposes.”
Henson said the data will show homeowners the location of STRs in their neighborhoods; help STR owners self-report if they haven’t been identified by Granicus; identify STRs operating illegally; and show potential homebuyers the location of STRs in case they want to buy one or avoid being near one.
“Knowing the number and location of STRs as of Sept. 15, 2022, allows the town to assess the impact of recent amendments to the UDO over time and evaluate the need for future amendments,” she said.
Town Manager Josh Ward said the Granicus software has been very helpful in identifying those properties using AirBnB, VRBO or Homestay.
However, if the town knows of STRs but can’t find their history via Granicus, letters are being sent to those homeowners requesting history information regarding room tax paid, contracts issued to renters, etc., to get the evidence needed to make sure everyone is in compliance.
“Once we have that information and proof, the owner is good to go,” said Ward.
Identifying illegal STRs – basically those that started up after the Sept. 15, 2022 deadline – is paramount to members of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition who brought up those concerns during a Fall Town Board meeting.
Ward said the software is doing its job. “It’s been a slow go and we continue to find stragglers.”
The town amended the UDO to allow existing STRs as of Sept. 15, 2022 in R1 and R2 to continue but no new STRs are allowed in those districts. However, both previous and new Tourist Homes are allowed in the R2 district.
Ward also announced that the Huff vs. Town of Highlands case is going to court Feb. 27 in Swain County where the town intends to file a motion to dismiss.
Representatives from Save Highlands said they aren’t aware of any newly filed motion to dismiss.
“The town’s prior counsel filed a motion to dismiss in 2021, instead of answering the complaint, so perhaps the town is considering resurrecting that,” said Jennifer Huff of Save Highlands. “What we do know is that we recently calendared our motion for attorneys’ fees to be heard in February. That motion is based on the town overstepping its authority in 2021.”
Huff said although the town has since acknowledged and walked back its initial position, it only did so in response to being challenged on its actions.
“We are confident in the basis of our motion,” she said.
The case was once again the subject of a closed meeting during the Thursday, Jan. 19 Town Board meeting, but details of the discussion were not made available.
Pictured at the top of the article is Highlands after light snowfall in January last year.