NEW BUFFALO — The New Buffalo City Council and Planning Commission held a joint meeting on the issue of short-term rentals in the city on Monday, Oct. 12.

Mayor Lou O'Donnell IV said the Oct. 12 session was meant to be an informational workshop with comments, presentations and discussion but no decisions.

He said city staff and their attorney will then work on ideas ahead of more meetings.

"Before the end of 2020 I would like to have our ordinance revised to something that will work for everybody "

Prior to the City Council passing a short-term rental ordinance and earlier this year (in May) placing a moratorium on new licenses until a revised ordinance is adopted, O'Donnell said city officials have made clear "this is a work in progress."

Now there is data, public comments and complaints.

He said the firm Granicus did a quick analysis of New Buffalo that indicated about 292 listings (representing 253 properties) while a little over 150 properties are registered.

Kyle Salonga of Granicus talked about the short-term rental data and tools to help with compliance that the company can provide, adding that the firm works with 350 local governments.

Recommendations for New Buffalo to address issues such as noise, parking and party houses included software services such as mobile-enabled registration, address identification, compliance monitoring, rental activity monitoring, and a dedicated hotline that people can call to make complaints and send in photos/videos after which the contact person can be reached. He also suggested passing out "good neighbor brochures" and posting pertinent laws such as the noise ordinance inside rental properties.

He said the cost of services is broken down my the modules chosen, adding that address identification and the dedicated hotline would be under $11,000.

City Attorney Nick Curcio said the city's zoning ordinance currently does not address short-term rentals (which could be looked at in the revision process).

He said short-term rental fees could be used for enforcement and/or compliance services like those supplied by Granicus.

Curcio said so far no state-wide laws covering short-term rentals have become law, but there are currently a few being proposed including one that would prohibit municipalities from zoning such properties in residential areas while imposing a state-level tax with no local revenues.

He said the city's current ordinance includes fees of about $100 per year and rules covering occupancy, parking, inspections, contacts, penalties and other issues.

"Starting point" options mentioned by Curcio for revising the ordinance included different ways of dealing with over-saturation of rentals in parts of the city; parking problems; noise, trash and adverse effects on neighbors.

O'Donnell said there's no doubt that fees have to be raised, adding that he expects there to be some sort of a cap on the number of rental properties. He also expressed interest in a "three strikes" system of imposing fines.

Public comments made during the joint meeting included:

John Humphrey said it's been two years since he first complained about the short-term rental across the street from him to city officials, noting that there is a lack of regulations despite a local ordinance. He also said the governor's executive orders banned short-term rentals from March until June 21, yet "everyone in this town knows there were dozens and dozens of rentals" operating in the city during that time, "and it went totally unchallenged."

He estimated the revenue in New Buffalo for over 300 rentals at "well over $10 million in private profits that the City of New Buffalo levies zero use tax on."

Cathy Sexton said the rental business is getting out of hand.

"Families can't even move here. Can't send their children to the school because it's all rented out. These people are coming in like cockroaches, buying up the property."

Louise Valentin said she has a neighboring property that has become "a party house," adding that she's had to call the owner "every weekend" about the noise.

"I am not against rentals, but what I am for is enforcement of the codes that you have here in this town," she said.

Ron Watson said rentals that exist in residential areas often operate like they are in a commercial district. He said there are more than 30 registered rentals in the 170-home Sunset Shores subdivision, but they can house eight to ten people with five to six cars parked around them.

He said as many as 15 cars were seen at one rental property, noting that this kind of density can place a burden on city services.

"The current ordinances are not working for parking or garbage and must be addressed," he said, later calling for stiff fines of $1,000 minimum for those who refuse to comply.

Jason Milovich said he's not dismissing that there are problems, adding that property owners who were "doing whatever they wanted" during the pandemic shutdown "makes us look bad."

Heather Gradowski said she owns a rental property and manages more.

"My sense is that the people who cause the most trouble are the ones who are not working with professionals in the business, and who are doing things on their own, and are nowhere to be found."

Jeff Miller said he owns a home in New Buffalo, expressed concerns about how many limits would be applied to a development that was planned for second homes.

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