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Planning Commission Expected To Consider Potential Short Term Rental Rules Soon

By Cece Nunn, posted May 15, 2017
Christine Hughes, senior planner with the city of Wilmington, presented recommendations on short-term rentals to the Wilmington City Council on Monday. (Photo by Cece Nunn)
At the end of the latest discussion on potential regulations for short-term rentals, during a Wilmington City Council session Monday, it appeared the matter would be referred to the city’s Planning Commission.

The Planning Commission would hold a public hearing and could make a recommendation, which would then be the subject of another public hearing before the changes could be put up for a City Council vote.

The Planning Commission considering the potential regulations would be a major step forward in what some say has become a drawn-out process to clarify or change current rules. During a presentation after their regular agenda meeting Monday morning, some council members expressed frustration over the amount of time it has taken the city to consider potential regulations for short-term rentals and confusion about the details of suggested rules.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark asked Monday why the council has been having such a hard time coming up with "something that makes sense" and urged officials to speed the process up.

“I don’t want us to be here October, November, Christmas . . . still talking about this,” Rivenbark said.

Because of the rise of short-term rental use by travelers through websites like Airbnb.com, it’s an issue communities across the U.S. and the globe have been addressing in recent years.

Officials in the Port City have been considering it since at least the latter part of 2015, when Residents of Old Wilmington sent a letter to the city and staff asking that the city look into the effects of short-term rentals, especially in Wilmington's historic district.

As a result of Monday’s discussion, with the city staff expected to make changes based on questions and concerns council members brought up this week and during previous conversations, an amendment could be on the July Planning Commission agenda and an August City Council agenda.

In the latest draft of potential rules put together by the city’s staff, a homestay would be treated like a bed-and-breakfast establishment.

It would be defined as “a type of home occupation that involves the rental of individual bedrooms within a dwelling unit that provides lodging for pay, for a continuous period of 89 days or less, that does not include serving food, and to which the definition of ‘family’ does not apply.”

Short-term lodging would be defined in the same way except instead of individual bedrooms, the rental would involve the entire dwelling.

Some council members took issue Monday with the "89 days or less" portion of the latest suggestions, something staff members said they would look at more closely.

Homestays and short-term lodgings would also be limited to one per numerical block or within 650 feet where there is no block structure in some of the suggested regulations. A different potential rule presented Monday would completely prohibit short-term lodgings in residential districts.

For the potential regulations that would allow homestays and short-term lodgings, annual registrations would be required for both, and registrants would be selected on a first-come, first-served basis, although some allowance could be made for existing bed-and-breakfast businesses.

“What’s still left to discuss is the fee schedule, the registration fee as well as the fee for code violations,” said Christine Hughes, senior planner with the city of Wilmington, as she responded to council members' questions Monday. “We haven’t reached that point yet in the discussion.”

The fees could make a difference, said Councilman Neil Anderson.

“If it’s high, then that’s kind of a barrier; if it’s low, then you’re looking at  . . . somebody could do four nights a year, which is essentially just blocking,” Anderson said. “If I were opposed to them, I’d just get a huge group of people and we’d all come down here and register and we’d rent for $5 a night to our aunt and uncle when they come twice a year and they’re done.”

City officials have determined that limiting rentals to a cumulative number of days, such as the previously suggested 30 days, would likely be impossible to enforce.

Councilman Kevin O’Grady repeated his opinion that allowing whole-home rentals in residential areas that are commercial ventures in his view would change the character of neighborhoods. Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes said allowing short-term lodgings with limitations would address the needs of what she sees as “a changing world.”

Describing the city's efforts as a whole, Anderson said, “Right now, we have the Wild, Wild West, and this is an effort to reel that in.”

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