Voices Heard

Heather Gradowsi speaks during the March 14 New Buffalo City Council special meeting.

NEW BUFFALO — The New Buffalo City Council is aiming to adopt a short-term rental ordinance ahead of the summer of 2019, and its members got plenty of advice on what the new rules should be during a March 14 special meeting focused on a draft version of such an ordinance (No. 237 of 2019).

Several of those speaking during a lengthy public comment period on March 14 urged the council to adopt a policy similar to the existing ordinance in Chikaming Township.

The idea of having a meeting with people from the short-term rental world, citizens opposed to such arrangements and city officials before a final version of the ordinance is adopted also was proposed by multiple speakers (and ultimately accepted).

Mayor Lou O’Donnell IV said the committee that has worked on the issue for more than a year and has looked at Chikaming’s ordinance and others “up and down the coast,” adding that city’s attorney has been involved in crafting the draft ordinance.

“I was happy to hear that once we gave him what our committee came up with, he (attorney Nick Curcio) had actually written some of the ordinances that they were looking at,”O’Donnell said. “He’s seen what works and what doesn’t work and has been able to combine all that into what our draft ordinance is right now.”

O’Donnell later stressed that the council “can always amend this.”

“We’re trying to keep it as basic as possible. We didn’t want to go overboard with the original ordinance,” he said, later adding, “We need to put something in place. This is for the health and safety of our town, and we need to regulate, we need to know who is renting, who to contact … if there is an issue.”

O’Donnell said enforcement will be crucial to the ordinance’s effectiveness once it’s in place, adding that a full-time enforcement officer (who also will handle rental inspections, downtown parking issues, and likely will be part of the police department) will be hired once the law is in place.

He said residents who have an issue with neighbors who are renting will be able to call this individual.

Issues involving how much the new position will cost and how many rental properties there are in the city are still being worked out, O’Donnell noted.

He said inspections will not happen all at one, saying once the ordinance is passed a form containing instructions on how to register a property that can be distributed (possibly via direct mail) to rental agencies and homeowners should be ready.

During City Council discussion, members of the audience (many of whom had already addressed the council during the public comment period, see below in this article) continued to urge some sort of an additional meeting between city officials, members of the rental industry and citizens to provide input before a final ordinance was adopted.

Council Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Ennis ended up proposing that the city manager and one or two council members participate in such a meeting between the March and April City Council meetings, and that idea was unanimously supported by the council (and later scheduled for a 10 a.m. March 26 open meeting in City Hall).

O’Donnell said the required first reading of the draft ordinance would take place at the March 18 regular council meeting, but changes can be made for the second reading (expected at the April meeting). The ordinance cannot be adopted until two readings have occurred.

Among those speaking during the March 14 special meeting were:

• Viki Gudas (President/CEO of the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce), who asked the council to take the time work with a committee of industry professionals and local residents to come up with an enforceable final ordinance that improves the quality of life for those who live here while also providing a great experience for visitors.

“If you talk to Realtors they will tell you that first people rent, then they buy, then they move here,” she said.

Gudas also noted that it’s important to  maintain the employment opportunities created by the rental industry.

• John Humphrey: A full-time resident since 2014 who said a four-bedroom home across Mayhew Street from his residence became a 16-person Airbnb rental property after being sold to an out-of-state business in September of 2018. He mentioned negative impacts of the property including 13 cars parked in places such as his lawn and a neighbor’s lawn the previous weekend.

“High-occupancy short-term rentals are a threat to local residents’ quality of life, safety and security,” he said.

• Mark Goldberg said he and his wife own a home in an association area along Merchant Street, hope to retire in New Buffalo, and try to rent to people who treat the neighbors respectfully. He said they generally support the ordinance and agree with about 95 percent of its provisions with a few suggested modifications including the relationship between maximum occupancy sand parking.

• John Natsis, a 20-year veteran of the rental industry, said he hoped the council would schedule secondary meetings with members of the vacation rental community and members of the public to go over the draft ordinance line by line, adding that many in the industry and very much in favor of common-sense rental ordinances that work for everyone. He said while there are issues at a few homes in the area, “most information is incorrect and heresay.”

• Jason Milovich (from Blue Fish Vacation Rentals) said while he feels the draft ordinance is based on good intentions, he raised questions on details including the maximum occupancy calculations, the requirement for yearly inspections and registration (noting that it’s every three years in Chikaming Township), what the fee will be, why the owner or agent is required to complete a checklist after every rental, and the need for twice weekly garbage pick-up.

He said the area’s five main vacation rental companies (Blue Fish, Yellow Bird, Beachtown, Waya and Aqua) worked with Chikaming Township officials when its ordinance was being developed.

“We would ask that you would allow us to do the same with you.”

• Julie Westergren urged the council to form a committee and gather additional information from residents and business owners to help make the draft ordinance “more realistic and reflective of what our community is.”

• Debbie McNulty said she has been coming to New Buffalo for about 30 years and purchased property in Camp Buffalo in 2014. Her husband died shortly after that, and she decided to rent out the house while working in Chicago, adding that she plans to retire here. She praised the local rental company shoe works with for doing a good job of screening renters.

• John Wojcik, an attorney who said he represents a few people who engage in short-term rentals, said such rentals have a significant positive economic impact “and I don’t think you want these over-regulated.”

He said the draft ordinance covers a lot of different topics, may need to be tweaked in some spots, but overall is a very good start.

“It provides clarity as far as what’s permissible and not permissible. It provides an enforcement mechanism,”

• Ron Morales of Waya Rentals (who said he also rents for Berkshire-Hathaway) said the rules that have been put in place in Chikaming Township really make a lot of sense.

Morales also said he has seen issues related to “terrible” second and primary homeowners as well as renters.

• Heather Gradowski, owner of a Sunset Shores rental property and a local Realtor, said she appreciates the proactive spirit the City Council is bringing to the issue, adding that the goal of the ordinance seems to be protecting the quality of life for rentees and renters.

She called for some adjustments to ambiguous portions of the plan.

• Loretta Friend, a local homeowner and business owner, raised the issue of cars parked on sidewalks near rental properties.

• Blagica Bottliglier, who said her family moved here last summer, urged city officials to work with Chikaming Township to provide more uniformity in area rental ordinances.

• Jorge Alvarez, who owns vacation rentals in the area, said he thinks there is a misconception about websites like Airbnb and Homeaway — which are only platforms for people to post their rentals on — the property owners are still responsible for what happens onsite.

O’Donnell said a copy of the seven=page draft ordinance (Ordinance to amend the New Buffalo City Code of Ordinances to add a new Chapter 11 regulating the short-term rental of residential dwellings) can be downloaded from the city website (www.cityofnewbuffalo.org).

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