Notes on the life of a local law, Part I

Adopted in the fall of 2021, Wilmington’s local law regulating short-term vacation rentals (STRs) is directly derived from a law that North Elba wrote in 2019 and passed in early 2020. This has been publicly acknowledged and can be seen in the fact that the two towns’ laws are extremely similar. More than 50 sentences or clauses in the two laws are identical or essentially identical, and dozens more are almost identical.

Where the laws differ, Wilmington’s version is either more vague or more permissive. There is no component of Wilmington’s law that is more restrictive than North Elba’s.

It is said that our laws evolve and develop based on experience, not logic.

There is no basis in either logic or experience for Wilmington to enter 2023 and 2024 latched to a vacation rental law that Lake Placid’s leaders wrote in 2019.

It should be clear that Lake Placid’s experiences with the Airbnb boom are not experiences Wilmington should seek to emulate. That truth is shown by the fact that vacation rentals have remained a “hot topic” — an ongoing source of public debates and private disputes, division, and displacement — in Lake Placid in the years since its STR law was adopted. That truth is also shown by the fact that Lake Placid is rewriting its old law.

Why tie Wilmington, for the next two-plus years, to a copy of a law that the leaders of our neighboring township passed nearly three years ago and have since decided is not good enough?

Some may question the amount of discussion Wilmington’s STR law has generated, but there are valid reasons for the level of interest in the law.

First, this is a time-sensitive issue. Although Wilmington’s law calls for a two-year permitting program (after which the community will finally be able to improve the law as those long-term permits expire), the town has yet to start issuing permits. Because no permits have been issued, Wilmington’s leaders still have the ability to adjust and improve the town’s vacation rental law before it is locked in. However, once two-year permits are issued, Wilmington will be bound to an anachronistic law for the next 24 months.

Wilmington residents are speaking up about these issues now — because later will be too late.

And this law will not merely lock the status quo into place for two years. In important ways, in part because of the zoning and land-use concept of a “prior non-conforming use” (a “grandfather clause”), it will likely lock the status quo into place for far longer.

A law such as the one adopted by Wilmington does not just solidify the status quo for a few years. It likely solidifies the status quo for decades to come — which is shown by the published drafts of North Elba’s new STR law, which allow all current vacation rental businesses to continue in perpetuity.

It is for this reason that some believe that pushing forward with the implementation of a heavily one-sided and already outdated STR law, then spending months dispensing permits to every hotel-like business that can pass a brief inspection and pay a minimal fee, is even worse than adopting no law at all.

It is important that we get this right the first time, because there is no going back after these businesses are formally permitted.

A more carefully drafted and well-balanced STR law would give our community more flexibility in the future and give neighboring property owners firm grounds to seek limits, compromises, and respect.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the public is interested in this law because STRs are the hot-topic of the decade — not just in Wilmington, but around the region.

The problems, controversies, disappointment, and disenchantment caused by the STR explosion in Lake Placid are well documented. The landmark article “There Goes the Neighborhood” was published in Adirondack Life more than four years ago, in August of 2018.

To take one of many possible examples, in 2019, the Enterprise published the following words: “Among a contingent of full-time, long-term Lake Placid residents, there’s some resentment for short-term rental owners that seems to stem from what they see as a diminishing sense of community. There’s a feeling that people who grew up here, people who work here and people who identify themselves as ‘working class’ are being pushed out of the village as property values skyrocket in tandem with the rise of the online vacation rental industry. … All of those concerns and more resurfaced at the hearing Monday evening.” (“Hearing on short-term rental rules becomes passionate debate on identity, survival,” ADE, Aug. 27, 2019.)

As the Airbnb boom, and its accompanying discontent, has spread from North Elba through the region, it has become clear that these tensions are not unique to North Elba. Nor are they tensions that our communities can sweep under the rug.

Among the reasons for the intense region-wide interest in short-term vacation rentals are their rapid proliferation in the past five years (and especially in the past three years); their significant impacts on the regional housing shortage; their impacts on the workforce shortage; their impacts on residential quality of life; and the fact that some of our towns have awarded STRs privileged status and allowed them to evade the rules to which similar businesses are bound.

These and other topics will be discussed in the following guest commentary.

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Tim Follos is a member of Wilmington’s town board. This guest commentary is the first in a two-part series.


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