NEW BUFFALO — The multi-faceted, long-running and contentious issue of how to deal with short-term rental properties drew dozens of public comments and moments of spirited debate over the course of three New Buffalo city meetings as members of the Planning Commission and City Council wrestled with proposed rules related to zoning in the city’s three “R” (residential) districts.
Ultimately the Planning Commission, during a Sept. 21 special session, rejected two options for recommending to the City Council an “ORDINANCE TO AMEND SECTIONS 2-3 AND 6-2, AND ADD A NEW SECTION 20-8 TO THE NEW BUFFALO ZONING ORDINANCE” that would either “PROHIBIT NEW SHORT-TERM RENTALS IN THE R-1, R-2, AND R-3 ZONING DISTRICTS” (known as Proposal A) or “PROHIBIT NEW SHORT-TERM RENTALS IN THE R-1 ZONING DISTRICT” (Proposal B). Both were forwarded to planners by the council.
Proposal A was rejected by a 5-0 vote while Proposal B failed 4-1 (with Bill McCollum voting “yes” after saying a short-term rental at the Camp Buffalo development had caused a big problem the previous weekend).
The Planning Commission then discussed, but did not act on, an alternative recommendation suggested by Chairman Paul Billingslea, who cited “the 17-month moratorium” and his feeling that “there has to be a better alternative than this.”
He said one of the main issues regarding short-term rentals involves density.
“It’s not about the total number, it’s about where those specific rentals are. (They can) cancel out a neighborhood, change its entire tone … You can’t just saturate a neighborhood with short-term rentals.”
During the Sept. 21 special meeting, City Manager Darwin Watson said the current number of short-term rental licenses in the city stands at 148, with 88 of them in the R-1 district. He said there are 78 applications in line for new short-term rental licenses, 45 of them in R-1 (the city’s 17-month-old moratorium on the issuance of new licenses is currently scheduled to expire on Nov. 1). Watson also said the Granicus firm has reported 50 unregistered active short-term rentals in the city.
Billingslea’s proposal was to allow the 45 outstanding license applications on the R-1 district to be processed, and then cap the number in that district where it stands for at least a year. He also called for more hard data to be made available (such as how many licensed properties are actually being used for short-term rentals) and review how the situation in the R-1 district is going to help guide decisions going forward.
“Can maybe we do 20 more short-term rentals in R-1?” He added that if the number of those applying exceeded the available licenses perhaps a lottery system could be employed.
Billingslea said members of the Planning Commission are currently “operating in a vacuum.”
“We don’t know the answers to a lot of these questions, but we have to take some action,” he said.
Ultimately Billingslea’s suggestion (which he called “a small step to move us forward”) was not proposed in the form of a motion by anyone on the commission. Planners Don Stoneburner and Mark Joseph said they need to be able to review more and better data before moving forward.
“I do not support any ordinance until we get more factual information, a survey, to see how the community feels,” Stoneburner said, later adding “I need more information before I can make a determination of what’s in the best interest.”
Although it was predicted that the City Council would pass either Proposal A or B the next time it meets, City Attorney Nick Curcio said it will take the council a minimum of two meetings to pass such a zoning amendment due to hearing requirements.
During the last portion of the Sept. 21 special meeting, members of the Planning Commission listened to a series of speakers comment on the short-term rental issue, with several thanking them for their actions that evening – as Heather Gradowski put it, “I think I speak for a lot of people here when I say it’s a breath of fresh air to feel like somebody’s actually listening to us.”
Planners had tabled the issue of recommending an ordinance amendment during a Sept. 16 special meeting which featured about two hours of public comment (with each speaker limited to a maximum of three minutes) and drew approximately 100 people to City Hall, with some listening in from the hallway or outside through open windows. The Sept. 21 Planning Commission meeting, along with the previous evenings’ City Council session, were also available for viewing on Zoom.
During the regular New Buffalo City Council meeting held Sept. 20, council member Lou O’Donnell IV proposed “we just put a cap on what we have for now, don’t actually pass ordinances” and “get rid of the moratorium, and hopefully the next few months get all this data and make some informed decisions” instead of requesting that planners recommend one of the two ordinance amendments they ultimately rejected the next evening.
He cited a portion of the proposed ordinance amendment that reads as follows: “WHEREAS, since enacting the ordinance, City staff has studied the registration statistics and the density of short-term rentals; and
WHEREAS, after extensive study of the proliferation and effects of short-term rental uses, the City Council has determined that if current trends were allowed to continue, short-term rental uses could undermine the character and stability of neighborhoods.”
“I’m not saying this isn’t true, but I’m saying there’s absolutely no way we could possibly know that at this point in time,” O’Donnell said.
Mayor John Humphrey said he understands what O’Donnell is saying, but the process being pursued by the City Council “was brought to us by the attorneys based on what’s going on with the federal lawsuit.”
He also said there is no definition of short-term rentals in the city charter.
“So technically, every single rental is an illegal operation,” he said, later noting “We are following the letter of the law here, and once it’s in we can make all the changes that we want.”
O’Donnell’s proposal was eventually defeated by a 4-1 vote (he cast the “yes” vote), with a subsequent motion to request a resolution on the short-term ordinance amendment from the Planning Commission passing by the same margin.
Several city officials decried various false narratives related to the short-term rental issue that have appeared on social media.
Humphrey said statements on the subject have been attributed to his son, adding that he doesn’t have a son. Humphrey also said he filed “civil proceedings” on accusations of crimes, cyberstalking, making false statements and invasion of privacy.
The majority of those voicing their opinions during public comment periods at all three evenings spoke in favor of allowing short-term rentals in the city and/or called for an end to the license moratorium.
A written comment from William D. Lenga sent to Planning Commissioners and City Council members included the following: “I respectively request that the Planning Commission vote against the proposed Zoning Ordinance regarding STR in the R-1, 2 and 3 zoning districts and to send a strong message to the City Council that the Planning Commission will not act on this matter until it receives (1) FACTS supporting the zoning ordinance recommendation, (2) a written legal analysis that explains fully the implications of the proposed ordinance on property owners affected thereby, (3) an analysis that considers the economic impact of the proposed zoning ordinance, (4) other criteria that allows the full understanding of the impact of this ordinance that the Planning Commission deems necessary. The decisions you are making affect the property rights of hundreds of community members that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into this community and its historic basic industry, tourism.”
A few speakers said they support the city’s proposed limits on short-term rentals, citing factors such as the worker shortage, the reduction in permanent residents and not knowing who your neighbors are.
On Sept. 20, Pete Weber said “I think this process needs to slow down, there is no emergency.”