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An underwhelming short-term rental law in Wilmington

After more than a year of debate, Wilmington’s town council on Tuesday adopted an underwhelming slate of tweaks to its 2021 law regulating short-term vacation rentals. These changes are welcome, but fall short of doing much of anything to manage the impact of existing STRs on residents’ quality of life.

With the council’s vote, Wilmington will now require inspections for STRs every two years. STR permitholders will be required to renew their permits each year if they want to continue to rent. The council also imposed a 150-permit cap, meaning that theoretically, a maximum of 150 STR properties will be allowed to operate in Wilmington at any given time.

However, along with that cap, the council put in place an avenue for people to apply for an exception to the permit cap in the case of “special circumstances.” Unfortunately, the legal language of this amendment was left open enough that it’s unclear what, exactly, would qualify as such a circumstance. By virtue of this vagueness, this amendment could open the town council up to a wealth of criticism and potential legal challenges were the council to decline to make an exception.

Overall, though the legal language of that one amendment could’ve been more refined, the town council made the right move to impose these regulations. The council’s failure was in not heeding the recommendations of its STR committee, which did its due diligence in crafting common sense ideas for how the council could protect neighborhoods from excess noise and parking issues by revising the town’s noise ordinance, setting parking standards and banning fireworks at STRs. The committee also recommended that the town limit how many STR permits any one person can have at any given time — this, too, is a common sense measure that would restrict investment firms from buying up large numbers of properties for use as STRs.

These ideas may not have been universally popular, but it’s crucial that Wilmington’s lawmakers look at the bigger picture.

In many ways, what’s happening in Wilmington now mirrors what communities in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake experienced as local lawmakers crafted a set of regulations on STRs there. This is a topic that will be endlessly controversial because it sits at the intersection of property owners’ livelihoods, residents’ quality of life, community identity and the affordable housing crisis. There are few regulations that will appease everyone, but this is a situation where lawmakers must make decisions informed by a forward-thinking vision for what they want their community to look like five to 10 years from now.

Wilmington is, and will probably always be, a destination people will want to visit. The Whiteface Mountain Ski Center is poised to be one of few world class ski areas equipped for the changing climate. It’s important that there are accommodations for visitors in Wilmington for the sake of the local economy. But it’s also important that Wilmington’s residential neighborhoods — and the quality of life in those neighborhoods — are preserved. As Enterprise Staff Writer Sydney Emerson reported this week, 35% of Wilmington’s estimated 414 housing units are currently STRs. The long-term housing supply is dwindling; that will have a long-term impact on not only the literal makeup of Wilmington’s community but on local school enrollment, the size of the labor market and the overall sustainability of this community.

Common sense STR regulations are a key coolant for a vacation rental market that could be overheating the local housing market.

It was clear from Tuesday’s meeting that some Wilmington lawmakers are less than enthused about the idea of continuing this conversation on STR regulations. That’s understandable — in Lake Placid, discussions on STR regulations went on for several years. But these are conversations worth having now, before it’s too late. We implore the board to continue working on its STR law and reconsider the recommendations of its STR committee.

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