Councilor calls for compromise, consensus on short-term rentals in Wilmington

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 the town board is serious about this desire, we can take a step toward the many Wilmington voters who believe the town needs an updated and flexible short-term vacation rental ordinance.

We have the opportunity to begin the challenging and time-consuming, but important, work of updating our short-term vacation rental (STR) ordinance before we lock into place a law that many have deemed inadequate.

Why the focus on STRs? Because the explosion of hotel-like businesses throughout the community presents multiple interlocking dilemmas. It’s a major issue because of the extent to which it influences and intensifies other important issues – including the housing shortage, the workforce shortage, and residential quality of life. It is also important to mention the confusion, tension, resentment, and questions of fundamental fairness surrounding the wild proliferation of hotel-like businesses – yet only hotel-like businesses, because most other businesses must apply for a use variance or a special use permit from the town’s Planning Board – throughout areas that many believe are zoned predominantly for residential use.

AirDNA is a tool marketed to investors and regularly cited by news reporters. AirDNA reports there are now 160 Airbnb and VRBO rentals active in Wilmington and that 84 percent of these businesses are whole-home rentals. Much of the remaining 16 percent are traditional lodging properties – hotels, motels and inns — that now accept reservations via Airbnb.

All of which provides context for the belief that, rather than our current faded copy of Lake Placid’s obsolete local law, Wilmington deserves an updated, modern, and flexible 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 have been 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 problem, because it is a primary cause of a housing shortage that is pushing local workers and families out of their own hometowns.”

In the months since Wilmington’s town board candidates provided their statements to the News, we have learned that the Airbnb boom is even bigger than we thought. AirDNA reports that the number of STRs in Wilmington has jumped from 100 in the spring of 2019 to 160 today.

Is the steep and ongoing escalation of hotel-like businesses throughout the township entirely positive and laudable? Is it a path to a thriving community? Is it a cause of the housing shortage? Is it consistent with the intent of our zoning codes, first adopted in 1975 and updated every decade or two thereafter?

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 various disagreements about the effect of the STR explosion on our community.

Genuine differences of opinion are a part of life, and I am well 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 1980s through the late 1990s, stepped away, then accepted the heavy responsibility of stepping up after the loss of town Supervisor Randy Preston.

Roy’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 seven months. I have learned that Roy is a master of the craft. I have learned that he is willing to play hardball. I have learned that 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 are well aware 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 has the ability to 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 August of 2022, and Wilmington’s leaders now 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.

(Tim Follos is a town councilor in the town of Wilmington.)

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