More than 1,000 comment in city’s short-term rentals survey

PortCityDaily.com is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

One of the poster boards covered in sticky notes where the public wrote their comments. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
One of the poster boards covered in sticky notes where residents wrote their comments at the March 17 public input meeting on short-term rentals. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

The results of public input surveys on short-term rentals in the City of Wilmington were presented to city council members at their agenda briefing Monday morning.

According to City Planner Bethany Windle, over 1,000 comments and surveys were received by city staff on the issue, which has been polarizing among residents. While some, particularly those living in the Historic District downtown, feel the practice of renting out rooms or entire homes for less than a month is a business and should not be allowed in areas zoned residential, others feel it gives visitors options to experience Wilmington’s charm firsthand as well as help locals supplement their incomes.

“Opinions were varied across the board,” Windle said of the alternative lodging industry, which has boomed in recent years thanks to websites like Airbnb.com or VRBO.com. “These comments were vastly diverse as to where short-term rentals should be allowed.”

At a packed public input meeting held at Forest Hills Elementary School in March, more than 401 comments were taken in the form of sticky notes placed on posterboards. Seventy-one hard copies of the survey were also turned in then. A slightly different survey was put online (Windle said this was because residents at the meeting were given a presentation with background information before taking the survey given then) and was completed by 547 people. Windle said city staff also fielded 30 direct emails and 12 phone calls from people wanting to voice their opinion. One of the biggest things people want to see, said Windle, is better code enforcement or an amendment to the current code.

“The public perception is that the current rules are not being enforced or are unenforceable as written,” said Windle of the city’s existing ordinance, which states that places must be rented out for a minimum of seven days.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark agreed.

“It’s an ordinance that’s damn near possible to enforce,” Rivenbark said.

“We need to decide if we’re going to enforce our code,” said Councilman Paul Lawler.

Windle said there’s general support for complaint-based enforcement, but both city officials and residents have questioned whether there are currently enough resources to carry it out.

There was also confusion about what is and isn’t allowed under both state statute and city code. According to City Attorney Bill Wolak, the state allows leases for 90 days or less provided the property owner has a main residence elsewhere, which means short-term rentals can’t be banned outright. Wolak also noted that an ordinance passed by a previous council to require a property owner or manager to live on site in order to rent it out (similar to requirements for bed and breakfasts) was struck down by a court of appeals.

Mayor Bill Saffo said the different rules are confusing for everyone, but especially property owners, and asked city staff to delineate that.

“Give me a clear definition of what a property owner can do,” Saffo said.

Though Windle said the survey results showed “many believe property owners should do as they wish” and “the majority are satisfied with short-term rentals,” council members still seemed reluctant to allow such uses in residential areas. Saffo, Rivenbark, Lawler Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes and Councilman Kevin O’Grady all made comments to that effect, with the latter being the most outspoken.

“The character of residential neighborhoods has to be residential,” said O’Grady. “This isn’t the first time we’ve had an industry try to invade a residential district … It’s becoming a burden for the neighborhood.”

Haynes asked how many of the respondents were actually residents of Wilmington, as she said she’d heard from visitors from all around the country on the issue. Windle said she didn’t have addresses of all the survey takers, but there was zip code data that was collected.

“These surveys are not statistically valid,” Windle said, saying no random sampling was done. “We just wanted to cast a wide net.”

While no decision has been made on the complicated issue, city staff recommends that council define short-term rentals in the land development code (typically by zoning them into or out of certain areas) and formulating a basis for regulation with a permitting and tracking system.

City officials will likely revisit the issue at a council meeting in the near future, although it has not been put on an official agenda yet. To view the slideshow presentation given to Wilmington City Council, click here.