Wilmington deserves clarity, Part II: A call for compromise
At a recent special Wilmington town board meeting there was much talk about working together and repairing the tension and division that have surfaced in town. If our town board is serious about this desire, it has the opportunity to take a step toward the many Wilmington voters who believe the town needs a better short-term vacation rental (STR) ordinance.
We can begin the important work of updating our STR regulations before locking into place a local law that many have deemed inadequate.
Why the focus on STRs?
The explosion of hotel-like businesses throughout the community is a major issue because of the way it intensifies other major issues, including the housing shortage and the workforce shortage. It’s a major issue because of its impacts, both positive and negative, on residential quality of life. It is a major issue because of the confusion, tension, resentment, and unanswered questions of fundamental fairness surrounding the wild proliferation of hotel-like businesses — yet only hotel-like businesses, because most other businesses would be required to apply for a use variance or a special use permit from the town’s planning board — throughout zoning districts that are predominantly residential.
AirDNA is a tool marketed to investors and regularly cited by news reporters. AirDNA reports there are now 160 Airbnb and VRBO listings active in Wilmington, that 84% of these businesses are whole-home rentals, and that much of the remaining 16% consists of traditional lodging properties — hotels, motels and inns — that now accept reservations via Airbnb.
Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic provided by AirDNA is that the number of vacation rental listings in Wilmington jumped from 100 in the spring of 2019 to 160 today.
All of which provides context for the belief that, rather than a watered-down version of North Elba’s already-nearly-discarded local law, Wilmington deserves an updated ordinance written to benefit middle-class taxpayers who own and operate a single home at least as much as it benefits those who own multiple investment properties and operate them as hotels.
Because my views on these issues are misunderstood by some, I would like to take a moment to clarify them. Last October, I provided a statement to the Lake Placid News. It was published in an article titled “Four candidates in the running for Wilmington town council” and included the following words.
“… (T)he connection between the widespread conversion of long-term rentals and owner-occupied homes into de facto hotels and the housing shortage is plain as day. Many apartments in the area that were, until recently, rented to members of the community are now rented on a nightly basis. …
“… Non-owner-occupied STRs — particularly those outside of the commercial center of town (the area defined in the zoning code as the “hamlet”) — should be discouraged. At a minimum, we should require a conditional use permit for non-owner-occupied STRs outside of the hamlet. And Wilmington should require STR owners who operate businesses in areas zoned for residential use to contribute more to the town’s general fund. This would generate funds for the community, which could be dedicated to projects that would benefit residents of Wilmington (such as Homestead Housing or youth programing), or used to hold steady or ease the tax burden borne by full-time residents. …
“… I don’t think anyone takes issue with a homeowner renting out a single spare room or a garage apartment, and I don’t think anyone objects to the operation of commercial entities within the areas of town zoned for commercial use. Those scenarios are not the problem and they should not be used to distract from the real issue. It is the pervasive conversion of long-term rentals and owner-occupied homes into unlicensed hotels that is a serious issue, because it is a primary cause of a housing shortage that is pushing local workers and families out of their own hometowns.”
The STR explosion raises questions that our community should seriously and carefully consider.
Is the continuing multiplication of hotel-like businesses throughout the township entirely positive and laudable? Is it consistent with the purpose of Wilmington’s zoning codes? Is it a path to a thriving community? Is it a change welcomed by a majority of our community? Is it a change that is opposed by a large and vocal group representing a larger and less-vocal group?
Is it time to pump the brakes and work toward common ground?
For at least a year, town Supervisor Roy Holzer and I have known that we have disagreements about the effects of the STR explosion on our community.
Genuine differences of opinion are a part of life, and I am aware that our political beliefs have little bearing on the content of our character.
It would be an understatement to say that I appreciate and respect the fact that Roy served continuously as an elected official from the early ’80s through the late ’90s, stepped away, then accepted the heavy responsibility of returning to public office after the loss of town Supervisor Randy Preston.
Supervisor Holzer’s service in leading the town through the trying, uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic was exemplary. No one could have done better.
Every Wilmington town board member has learned about their colleagues over the past eight months. I have learned that Roy is a master of the craft. I have learned he can play hardball. I have learned he is not quick to compromise or cede ground.
And, of course, on all issues related to STRs, he does not need to.
Those who have attended multiple Wilmington town board meetings this year know that there is a bloc on our board that believes in the status quo: the continued proliferation of hotel-like businesses throughout the town.
On our board, this bloc seems to have a numerical advantage. This bloc can ignore the members of the community who have asked their elected officials to pause the looming distribution of STR permits and draft a better vacation rental law. The members of this bloc do not have to compromise. They do not have to budge an inch.
But they could.
It is September of 2022, and Wilmington’s leaders have the opportunity to step away from an outdated ordinance, extend an olive branch, lower the heat and tension and work together to provide the community with an updated, farsighted and flexible law regulating the operation of hotel-like businesses in our town.
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Tim Follos is a member of Wilmington’s town board. This is the second part of a two-part commentary.