Archived Opinion

A wise decision on Highlands STRs

A wise decision on Highlands STRs

To the Editor:

The Highlands Neighborhood Coalition was formed by homeowners throughout Highlands to preserve the historic character of our town and to ensure that there are neighborhoods in Highlands that are purely residential and free from commercial activity, specifically short-term rentals (STR’s). 

We welcome the Town Board’s May 19 action of amending the current Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) as a good first step in halting the unchecked proliferation of STRs in Highlands. The changes clarify what some saw as ambiguities in the previous language, which did not use the term “short-term rental.” Short-term rentals are now defined in the UDO as a commercial use and prohibited in certain residential neighborhoods — those zoned R-1 and R-2. 

The difficulty the board has struggled with since last summer — as many, many communities have done throughout the country — is what to do with currently operating STRs in these now prohibited residential zones. After consultation with two prominent land-use attorneys, hours of public comments, a thorough review of state statutes, and an analysis of the recently decided Schroeder v. City of Wilmington decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the town board determined that the best way forward is to allow these STRs in R-1 and R-2 to continue operating as long as they can provide proof to obtain a Nonconforming Use Permit (NUP) and then must operate strictly within the parameters of past use. 

In addition, all STRs, no matter where they are located in Highlands, must obtain a permit to operate a short-term rental (STR Permit). The standards for obtaining both permits are clear and reasonable, as are the compliance rules. For example, any STR attached to the town sewer system cannot exceed 12 guests. All STR guests must comply with town nuisance, noise and trash ordinances. Special events are not allowed. Vehicles cannot park on the public right-of-way. Contact information for the STR owner or operator must be posted on the premises. 

Permitting and enforcement will be time-consuming for the town and we trust that they are up to the task they have created for themselves. The mayor accurately predicted that no one will be totally happy with these changes. For those of us who want to live quietly in our mountain homes, the option chosen by the town still leaves many of us with mini-hotels operating next door. And so HNC remains concerned, but hopeful that this first step will allow the town to fully understand and manage the problems created by commercial activities in residential neighborhoods. 

Commissioner Amy Patterson said it best at the meeting. “The future of the town is worth fighting for.” We agree and will continue to support the town’s efforts to preserve the character we cherish about Highlands. 

Cathy Henson


Highlands Neighborhood Coalition

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