Notes on the life of a law, Part II
Some say that it is necessary for Wilmington to begin registering short-term vacation rental (STR) properties now, so we can gather data before finally stepping away from a near-replica of Lake Placid’s old STR law.
But we have the most important data already.
We know that the Airbnb boom has hit every part of Wilmington. We know that the number of STRs in Wilmington has increased dramatically in just the past three years. We know that professional management companies and LLCs are using corporate websites to operate year-round businesses in formerly residential parts of town. We know that STRs, under the current draft of our local law, are held to different standards than similar businesses. We know that the old Lake Placid law, which is the basis of Wilmington’s STR law, is inadequate.
And by spending a few hours with the publicly available information provided by AirDNA, one can obtain even more information.
Those who care to look will see that there are now at least 120 “whole-home” STRs active in Wilmington. None of these Airbnb or VRBO listings are hotel rooms or spare rooms in local homes. Most are full-time businesses that can be rented by members of the general public every, or nearly every, day of the year.
We know that the Airbnb boom is causing tension throughout our region due to its major impact on the regional housing shortage, its impacts on residential quality of life, and the fact that municipal leaders have allowed STRs to largely evade the rules to which similar businesses are bound.
Although often separated by miles of Adirondack Park preserve, our communities are closely linked. It may be true that Wilmington has only lost dozens of homes to the STR boom — but the impacts of the explosion are not neatly isolated by zip codes.
Does anyone deny that — between Wilmington, Lake Placid/North Elba, Saranac Lake, Jay and Keene — at least hundreds of formerly long-term rentals and owner-occupied homes have been converted into hotel-like businesses?
Does anyone deny that this is a primary cause of the severe regional housing shortage?
In addition to the severe regional housing shortage (recently repeatedly described as a “crisis” in this newspaper) and its corollary, the regional workforce shortage, STRs, while a boon to many, can be a significant detriment to nearby property owners, who did not want or expect to live nextdoor to hotel-like businesses.
This is one of the many reasons it is important for Wilmington to get our STR law right prior to allowing these businesses to assert “grandfather” rights for decades to come.
The unfairness of allowing vacation rental businesses to play by their own set of rules has been noted by many. It was noted by Lake Placid citizens who spoke up in a public hearing covered by this newspaper in 2019 ( “Hearing on short-term rental rules becomes passionate debate on identity, survival,” Aug. 27, 2019); and it was noted in a letter published in this newspaper last month.
Hotels, motels, inns, mechanics, restaurants, taverns, shops and even self-storage facilities all must apply for a special use permit or a variance from Wilmington’s Planning Board. Obtaining a special use permit is rarely a serious challenge, but, as others have stated, the requirement “gives neighboring property owners a chance to view plans, ask questions, seek limits and compromises, and be heard” (“STRs shouldn’t have special status,” Adirondack Daily Enterprise, Nov. 16).
Why, and when, did Wilmington decide to privilege STRs above other businesses?
Should all existing STRs enjoy this privileged status for decades to come?
Wilmington residents began publicly asking their leaders to adopt a better STR law in June (“Wilmington must modernize short-term rental policies now,” Lake Placid News, June 30). If we had decided to heed those calls, we could have completed that work already.
At this point, more than 70 Wilmington residents have asked their elected representatives to pump the brakes and work together to adopt a better STR law. Does anyone doubt that this large group represents a much larger group?
Although we were told that the STR permitting process would begin in July, there was no apparent hurry to begin dispensing STR permits in Wilmington in any previous month in 2022. There is no compelling reason to begin issuing permits now, anchoring Wilmington, for years to come, to a facsimile of a law Lake Placid is already in the process of discarding.
What is the harm in spending a few more months and getting it right?
The calls for a lengthy permitting and data collection program, conducted according to the terms of a one-sided local law, may strike some as a tactic deployed to cement the lopsided status quo.
Nonetheless, since some say an initial registration and data collection process is necessary, let us then go the extra mile and spend several months registering and cataloging these businesses. We can issue temporary provisional licenses, valid for six months, during this time. This will allow Wilmington to enter 2024 with an evenhanded, up-to-date, well-crafted and farsighted STR law.
By taking a step toward the many community members who have asked them to draft a better STR law — a law that reflects the present day and addresses their constituents’ concerns — Wilmington’s leaders can demonstrate their willingness to listen and willingness to compromise.
It is time to take a stand in favor of fairness, common ground and common sense; pause the looming distribution of long-term STR permits; bring the community together; and draft a cautious, contemporary, and, most importantly, well-balanced local law — the type of law Wilmington deserves.
— — —
Tim Follos is a member of the Wilmington Town Board. This guest commentary, the second in a two-part series, reflects the work of Follos, research by Wilmington resident Laura Dreissigacker and edit suggestions by several Wilmington residents prior to submission.