Notes on the life of a short-term rental law in Wilmington

Adopted in the fall of 2021, Wilmington’s local law regulating short-term vacation rentals is derived from a law that North Elba’s leaders wrote in 2019 and passed in early 2020. This is publicly acknowledged and is demonstrated by 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; 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 logic or experience for Wilmington to spend the next two years 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 source of debates, division and displacement in Lake Placid in the years since its STR law was enacted.

That truth is also shown by the fact that Lake Placid has already scrapped 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 three years ago and have since decided is not good enough?

Though some may question the amount of discussion Wilmington’s STR law has generated, there are valid reasons for the 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 be able to improve its law as the permits expire), as of this writing, the town has yet to begin issuing permits. Until permits are issued, Wilmington’s leaders have the ability to adjust the town’s STR law. But once two-year permits are issued, Wilmington will be bound to an already outdated law for 24 months.

Secondly, this law will not merely lock the status quo into place for two years. It will likely lock in the status quo for far longer. This is shown by the published drafts of North Elba’s new STR law, which allow all active vacation rental businesses to continue in perpetuity.

It is important to get this right the first time, because once these businesses are formally permitted, there is no going back. 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 worse than adopting no law at all.

Wilmington residents are speaking up now, because later will be too late.

Third, we must acknowledge that STRs are the region’s hot-topic of the decade.

The problems, controversies, disappointment and disenchantment caused by the explosion of STRs in Lake Placid are well documented. The landmark article “There Goes the Neighborhood” was published in Adirondack Life in August of 2018. As the Airbnb boom, and its accompanying discontent, has spread through the region, we have learned that these tensions are not unique to North Elba. Nor are they tensions that our communities can sweep under the rug.

Some say Wilmington must begin registering STRs now, so we can gather needed data before finally stepping away from our watered-down copy of Lake Placid’s old law.

But we have the necessary data already.

We know that the STR explosion 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 other businesses (“STRs shouldn’t have special status,” ADE, Nov. 16).

We know that the law Lake Placid wrote in 2019 is inadequate for Wilmington in 2023 and 2024.

And by spending a few hours with the information provided by the website 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 almost every, day of the year.

We know that the STR boom is the cause of tension around the region because of its contributions to the regional housing shortage, its impacts on residential quality of life, and the fact that municipal leaders have allowed STRs to evade rules to which other businesses are bound.

We know that 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).

We know that more than 70 Wilmington residents have, in various ways, publicly asked their elected representatives to pump the brakes and work together to write an STR law that addresses their concerns. Does anyone doubt that this group represents many others?

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. As of the day this article was submitted to this newspaper, zero STR permits have been distributed in Wilmington.

What is the harm in spending a few more months and getting it right?

It is time to take a stand in favor of unity, fairness, common ground, and common sense; pause the looming distribution of long-term STR permits; bring the town together; and collaboratively draft a careful, up-to-date, and well-balanced local law — the type of law Wilmington deserves.

(Tim Follos is a member of Wilmington’s town board.)

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