A line formed out the door Thursday night as a presentation was being given to an already crowded, standing-room only recreation room at Forest Hills Elementary School.
The crowd was there not to see a student performance, but to give their input on an issue that has come to the forefront in recent months: how to deal with short-term rentals in the city of Wilmington.
Employees from the city’s planning and zoning departments manned different stations with posters around the room and took questions and comments from residents after the short presentation was over. Each station had a different topic, such as zoning or code enforcement or permits.
There were passionate residents on both sides of the issue, with those in favor of it saying it helps locals make some money while giving tourists options other than hotels and traditional bed and breakfasts, and those against it saying they ruin the character of homes and neighborhoods, particularly in the historic district of downtown Wilmington.
“There are many, many competing interests at play,” said Sylvia Kochler, president of Residents of Old Wilmington (ROW), which is against allowing short-term rentals, sometimes called vacation rentals by owner (VRBOs), in residential areas. “We’re trying to make people understand the importance of zoning. Residential homes should be used for residential purposes.”
Such rentals, during which visitors usually stay for a weekend or even just overnight, have proliferated in recent years since the advent of web-based services such as AirBnb. Kochler, a trained lawyer, said they are illegal under current city ordinances, which require a minimum seven-day stay. Many believe it’s time for the code to be updated.
“What kind of vacationer has 30 days off?” read one of the comments left by an attendee. “Don’t take away their weekends!”
“It’s way behind the times,” said Josh Hodges, a Wilmington resident and owner of the Nora Alan Real Estate Group. “Wilmington is literally going to be the last city to get on board with this.”
Hodges, who owns several properties downtown, said not allowing VRBOs is detrimental both to local small business owners and to tourists who want more than a corporate hotel experience in an area that touts its own charm and history.
“If we don’t want to thrive and get ahead, then we’re doing a good job of getting in our own way,” Hodges said.
Historic District residents Michael McGinty and Jackie Breny have a different take.
“Residents in the Historic District do support local businesses. We love them,” McGinty said. “We open up our homes during the Azalea Festival and Cucalorus [Film Festival]. We welcome people into the city and often act as tour guides.”
“The festivals bring people in, and those visitors want to see all the historic homes,” continued McGinty, who lives in a house built in 1885. “These rentals change the character of our neighborhoods and decrease property values.”
“Our investments need to be protected,” said Breny. “People in historic homes put a lot of money into restoring them.”
Neal Huggins, who lives and works downtown, has also invested money into his properties, but he’s on the same side as Hodges.
“If you own a VRBO, you’re going to put money into it and take care of it,” Huggins said. “You have to advertise your own place on these sites, so if you want to get people to rent your place, it’s going to have to be above average. You’re going to take good care of it and it’s going to look good.”
Kochler said that while she’s glad downtown property owners take care of their places, there’s no guarantee that the guests they rent to will do the same. She said people who make that argument assume their renters are all “affluent and quiet.”
“People rent private homes because they plan to do things that hotels don’t permit – essentially, they’re looking for a weekend ‘party house’,” said Kochler. “Those people don’t care how the house looks. The people that maintain homes the best are residential homeowners.”
Fellow ROW member McGinty agreed.
“Neighborhoods are not buildings; neighborhoods are people that you build relationships with – that’s what a neighborhood is,” McGinty said. “Short-term renters are not neighbors. You never know who’s going to be next door to you. It’s also a big safety thing.”
Still, McGinty’s biggest issue is that people who run VRBOs are breaking city code.
“There’s a law on the books, and the law should be enforced,” said McGinty. “They need to abide by the restrictions that are in place.”
Those restrictions could change over the next few months, however, as the city takes a closer look at what would work best for Wilmington. Other cities such as Asheville and San Francisco have recently dealt with similar issues, but in vastly different ways, and city staff here said there’s no singular “best practice” model to follow.
The public input collected at Thursday night’s meeting, along with emails and calls from residents, will be compiled into a report by the city’s planning department. An online survey is also available that mirrors the one given to the meeting’s attendees. It will be open until April 1, when staff will start compiling their comprehensive report. They hope to present it before city council sometime in May.