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Wilmington OKs new STR rules

The Wilmington Town Council is pictured here on Tuesday during a public hearing regarding amendments to Wilmington’s STR law. From left to right are Tina Terry Preston, Darin Forbes, Favor Smith, Laura Dreissigacker Hooker and Tim Follos. (Enterprise photo — Sydney Emerson)

WILMINGTON — The Wilmington Town Council on Tuesday passed a law amending its short-term vacation rental law following a contentious public hearing, a split vote and 14 months of debate. The new law caps the number of STRs in Wilmington at 150, mandates STR inspections every other year and reduces the term of STR permits to one year.

Changes to Wilmington’s STR law, first adopted in 2021, have been more than a year in the making. Wilmington’s STR committee, appointed by the town council under Supervisor Roy Holzer in April 2023, presented its findings at a public meeting last August. A draft STR law written by the committee and based on its findings was reviewed by the town council in February. At the time, residents questioned the draft’s enforceability and reach. The town council agreed at that meeting to revise the draft before sending it to the town attorney. At its May meeting, after several months of discussion, the town council agreed to take the new law to a public hearing.

The crowd gathered at the town council’s meeting Tuesday largely voiced support for the cap on STR permits. A number of citizens expressed concerns that exemptions to the cap would effectively undermine the cap, while others agreed that an appeals process is necessary. Overall, the majority of attendees seemed to be in favor of the council adopting these regulations as a whole — though some felt they should’ve been more restrictive. The town council, however, was more divided; its members were split on what they saw as the best path forward for the town’s STR regulations.

In the time between the committee’s Aug. 9 report and the adoption of these amendments, 35 new STR permits have been issued for a total of 145 permitted STRs. This means 35% of Wilmington’s estimated 414 housing units are currently STRs.

Wilmington STR committee co-chair Pat Winch reads a statement at a public hearing regarding amendments to Wilmington’s STR law on Tuesday. (Enterprise photo — Sydney Emerson)

Amendments and votes

The four amendments up for review at Tuesday’s public hearing were significantly pared down from the STR committee’s draft, focusing mostly on capping the amount of STR permits issued in Wilmington, which was only one component of the committee’s recommendations.

The first amendment in the proposed law explains the town council’s intent to regulate STRs. The second amendment makes STR permits valid for one year instead of two. Any two-year permits already issued under the old STR law will remain valid. The third amendment caps STR permits at 150, subsequently limiting the amount of STRs townwide to 150, as permits are issued by unit, not by owner. The town council will be allowed to grant exemptions to this cap in “special circumstances,” provided they hold a public hearing on the matter beforehand. The fourth amendment requires that every STR must be inspected by the town code enforcement officer every two years.

The town council opted to vote on each section of the law individually, with the third amendment split into two votes: one on the STR cap and one on the cap exemption. All sections passed unanimously except the two votes on the third amendment, which split the board. Councilor Darin Forbes was the lone vote against the STR cap, which passed 4-1. Councilors Tim Follos and Laura Dreissigacker Hooker voted against the cap exemption, which passed 3-2. Both said that, while they understand it’s appropriate to have some sort of exemption procedure, they wished the guidelines for exemptions were more clear.

Wilmington is among a number of local municipalities, including Keene, which are drafting or tweaking their STR regulations as the rise in popularity of STRs exacerbates the local affordable housing crisis. The town of North Elba and village of Lake Placid adopted STR regulations in 2020 and the village of Saranac Lake followed in 2023.

Public hearing

It was standing room only at the Wilmington town offices Tuesday when the public hearing regarding the proposed STR law began. Most of the public comments offered support for the institution of an STR cap. The room was split on the STR exemption procedures, with some members of the public commenting that it was reassuring to know they could appeal to the board after the STR cap has been met and others suggesting that the cap should be a hard moratorium.

“(The STR committee) was so hopeful when at least the cap was mandated, even though it was larger than we recommended. I just don’t understand why the town board would agree to make these minimal necessary changes to our STR law and then immediately create a loophole to evade it,” said STR committee co-chair Pat Winch.

STR committee co-chair Nancy Gonyea read a letter from Wilmington residents Bill Wonderlin and Linda Shuster that questioned the exemption process.

“Although it is good that the town board will be responsible for granting exemptions and that public hearings will be required … it is problematic that there is no definition of what might constitute a valid ‘special circumstance,'” the letter read.

They went on to write that, if exemptions could not be better defined in the amendment, they should be removed altogether.

Town Supervisor Favor Smith said that any moratorium, including the cap, needs to have a variance procedure to be legal.

Follos said that the board “might be mostly on the same page” regarding the legal necessity of an exemption to the cap, but disagreed on the clarity of the exemption language, both in the law and in a proposed resolution outlining criteria for exemptions that Smith wrote.

“I don’t disagree with the concept. But, the way (the resolution) is worded — ‘unnecessary hardship or such other circumstances for which equity would allow an exemption’ — that is so vague. I believe it should be more clear,” he said.

Follos added that, while the board discussed the concept of an exemption procedure back in May, board members only received the wording of that part of the amendment on Friday, June 7.

Forbes said that his primary concern with limiting the amount of STR permits at any given time is the pressure it would create on people to “reserve” their permit by applying before they intend to rent. He said Wilmington has already seen this happen.

“A resident who’s never had STRs before signed up for three (permits) for his own property just to lock in the spots, and I feel like that took spots from people who may need them,” Forbes said.

The exemption procedure for the cap, Forbes said, could be useful in such situations when a member of the public believes that they are being prevented from owning and operating an STR by someone who holds a permit but does not use it.

“I guess that would be another amendment,” Follos said, regarding a crackdown on permit placeholders.

“Yes, let’s keep amending the code,” Smith said.

“We are going to keep amending the code if we want to adopt any of the committee’s suggestions,” Follos said.

Amending amendments

Smith said that he planned to define exemption procedures in a separate resolution rather than by adjusting the amendment. However, he later said that STR laws can only be amended via local laws, not resolutions, due to the fact that they involve property.

“Here we are. It’s June 11. I can go back to the drawing board and add some standards in there. We can also adopt a series of resolutions that gives us that guidance,” he said. “If we don’t — we want to put (the standards) into the local law — we can come back here in September. And how many more people will file for permits?”

Follos said additional amendments would not take as long to develop as Smith suggested.

“We don’t have to pretend that it’s harder than it is,” he said.

Wilmington resident Dan Hansen suggested to the board that they pass the cap on Tuesday and continue to work on the exemption portion of the amendment until everyone approved of the language, and Follos agreed that additional amendments could be added if the board agreed. Smith said every amendment would take a new local law, adding that the cap and the exemption must be passed in tandem to appease opposing board members.

“We have to write a new local law — we have to piecemeal this — every time. This is a compromise with a cap and an exemption, the two things this local law is doing, primarily. Asking us to come back again after one party’s gotten their cap and the other party hasn’t gotten their exemption … that’s not legal,” Smith said.

Smith again suggested that, if the board and public were unhappy with the law, they table the discussion for the night and he’d return with a rewritten law at an unspecified later date. While the board ultimately passed the STR law amendments, they did not review or vote on Smith’s resolution outlining exemption criteria, instead tabling it until the board’s next work session later this month.

Committee feedback

The STR committee’s policy proposals in August were anchored by the plan to cap the number of STR permits available at any given time at 120 — the number of STRs in town on the date of their presentation. This is 30 permits lower than the final law’s cap of 150. Wilmington is now just five permits away from hitting the new cap.

At Tuesday’s hearing, members of the committee expressed dismay that the town council did not adopt more of their recommendations, such as limiting the amount of permits one person may hold at any given time, revamping the town noise ordinance and banning yard parking and fireworks at STRs.

“Our STR committee worked all summer to create new, fair guidelines. Very few of our suggestions were adopted,” committee co-chair Winch said.

Wonderlin and Shuster’s letter echoed Winch’s comments.

“The STR regulations committee appointed by Supervisor Holzer developed a very good set of recommendations that merged lessons learned by other communities with the needs of Wilmington,” the letter read. “It is disappointing that nearly all of those recommendations have been ignored in this amendment.”

When asked what the board plans to do about the remainder of the committee’s suggestions, Forbes said that this law was a “starting point” and that the board was concerned about timelines.

“By the time we took the review committee’s full proposal, went through it with a fine-tooth comb, had all the language correct, made the amendments, we figured it was going to be a year before it would be enacted. So, we chose to do this route and it still took us almost six months,” he said.

The town council received the STR committee’s draft STR law on February 6, four months before the council’s amendments were passed. Review of the amendments have been on every town council agenda since March 12.

Follos said he hopes the committee’s other suggestions are enacted, and he plans to keep bringing them up at meetings.

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