Agreement is close on vacation rental rules

Lake Placid village and North Elba town officials should drop a proposed three-night minimum for vacation rentals. We are hearing a consensus on that, at least.

This consensus is not unanimous consensus, but it appears to be broad and solid. Even Sarah Galvin, speaking for residents worried about how short-term rentals may be driving housing prices out of reach for locals, said dropping the three-night minimum would be fine.

Consensus also seems to be coming along in support of the rest of the regulations, although there are still a couple of sticking points. There doesn’t seem to be anyone loudly arguing against any regulation at all. Leaders of a group of vacation rental owners, many of them from out of town, agree that most of the proposed rules would be fine; they just take issue with a few of them.

First and foremost is the three-night minimum. The argument for it is anecdotal rather than statistical: Village police say overnight or two-night guests tend to cause more problems than long-term ones — but wouldn’t that go for hotels, too? And the community is not banning overnight guests from other lodging. The point of these rules should be to treat the currently unregulated vacation rental units more like hotels, not to simply punish them for being what they are.

Also, the three-night minimum unfairly punishes customers, many of whom want to stay for just one or two nights — the same as for hotels. Banning popular options could be a major blow for the local hospitality industry.

So that’s one rule that should be quickly disposed of.

The group of short-term rental owners also takes issue with a 16-person maximum. The draft regulations would already cap each unit’s occupancy based on its number of rooms, so is an overall cap necessary on top of that?

We could see it going either way. If, for instance, a giant house with nine two-person bedrooms was on the market, would it be wrong to sleep a big family reunion group of 18 there? Maybe not, but that’s also a lot of people to be funneled into the house’s common areas, kitchen, driveway, parking areas and neighborhood streets. Maybe one 18-person house wouldn’t be a big problem, but if several were clustered on the same street, we could see reason for neighbors to be annoyed. And what if developers start building more of such buildings? It might become as much as zoning question as anything else, and perhaps the community should discuss it further in that light.

A third rule the owners group disputes would require that each bedroom have some kind of emergency egress, such as a window fire escape. The group says this isn’t required for homes or hotels, so it shouldn’t be for rentals. But isn’t it required for long-term rentals? So do we hold short-term rental units to the apartment standard or the hotel/home standard? If the latter, would that influence landlords to convert more long-term rental units to short term? That conversion has been happening for a while, and it’s been an incredible loss for Lake Placid’s workforce and the businesses desperate for staff.

At this point we lean toward holding vacation rentals to the apartment standard for fire safety, but this might be a good topic for further discussion and negotiation. Parties at the table might include code enforcement, the fire department and apartment owners as well as short-term rental owners, neighbors and municipal board members.

Once these sticking points are figured out, it seems the Lake Placid area community is well on its way to establishing vacation rental rules that most people agree on.

These regulations will surely evolve over time, but local leaders are wise to hone them as much as possible now, when people are paying attention — and they are, including many who haven’t paid attention to local government matters in years, if ever. It’s a great opportunity to show them how democracy can function well.

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