Complaint filed against Town of Highlands
A group of homeowners calling themselves the “Save Highlands Committee” has filed a legal complaint against the Town of Highlands for its decision to enforce a ban of short-term rentals within the R-1 residential area.
The group sent out a press release on Oct. 13 announcing they had hired Asheville law firm Allen Stahl + Kilbourne and filed the complaint to “protect the people whose livelihoods depend on travel and tourism, the personal rights already vested in individual property owners, and inclusivity in the Town of Highlands have taken legal steps to protect their neighbors and their rights.”
During an Aug. 24 meeting, Highlands Board of Commissioners voted to direct staff to enforce all of the town’s residential ordinances as written. While a broader discussion about the Unified Development Ordinance is being had, the big takeaway from that meeting is that the town will start enforcing the part of the ordinance that bans short-term rentals from the R-1 residential district beginning Jan. 3, 2022.
The UDO states that “any use not specifically set forth in the use category is expressly prohibited.” Since short-term rentals aren’t specified, they are not allowed under the current UDO. The town’s R-2 Districts, however, do specifically allow for “tourist homes” with a special-use permit. A tourist home includes bed and breakfasts and inns “Where sleeping accommodations of not more than four rooms are provided for occasional transient paying guests.”
According to the Save Highlands Committee, the Town of Highlands has allowed vacation rentals for decades and has permitted many property owners to make substantial investments based on that policy. The committee is seeking declaratory relief from the court to prevent the town from discriminating against property owners’ ability to use their property as they see fit, while providing favorable treatment to other property owners. They are not seeking monetary damages from the Town of Highlands.
The committee started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for legal fees and so far they’ve raised over $117,000 toward their $200,000 goal.
The committee has also enlisted the support of Old Edwards Inn, one of the largest service employers and one of the largest accommodations in Highlands.
“Old Edwards Hospitality Group is totally supportive of vacation rentals in Highlands and we always have been. There are simply not enough hotel rooms in town for the volume of visitors that have discovered Highlands and love visiting Highlands with their families. Banning vacation rentals in Highlands would have an immediate and drastic negative impact on us and all businesses in town that have come to rely on that additional room inventory over the last 20+ years. In my estimates you could be talking about well over $10-$15 million spent in Highlands’ businesses annually by vacation rental guests. How will all of us that have businesses in town replace that revenue?” wrote Old Edwards Inn President Richard M. Delany.
But the issue of short-term rentals in Highlands is not one sided. The Highlands Neighborhood Coalition was formed by residents who’ve experienced the downside to AirBnbs and VRBO rentals and want the town to enforce its ordinance.
Cathy Henson, president of the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition, recently sent out a letter to residents asking for their support. She said she and her husband bought their home on Satulah Mountain in 2004 because Highlands provided the small-town experience they were looking for on holidays and weekends after working all week in Atlanta.
“Over the past few years, we have become concerned about the proliferation of short term rentals (STRs) in our residential neighborhood. We bought our home relying on the Town of Highlands zoning designation of our neighborhood as R-1, which prohibits all commercial activities,” she wrote. “It specifically categorizes ‘Overnight Accommodations’ as a Commercial Use, and as such, under the Town’s Code, we have always believed this includes the short term rental of private residences.”
While no one really knows how many STRs are operating in the R-1 district right now, Henson said estimates range from 400 to 1,000. She believes that a majority of Highlands’ 25,000 second homeowners have also experienced the “alarming rate” of STR growth recently and the “outright fear that our beloved little town is being destroyed.”
Instead of seeing the same neighbors returning to their homes on the weekends, Henson said they have new neighbors every weekend who make a lot of noise playing music, letting their dogs bark, parties, fireworks and vehicles speeding up and down the narrow mountain roads putting others in danger.
“The infrastructure of Highlands is being overrun — traffic, trash, Covid exposure, and no affordable housing for local workers, to name only a few issues,” Henson said. “All mainly to serve the commercial purposes of an ever-expanding wedding event enterprise and related services. These events now far exceed the capacity of our town and thus are negatively impacting the long-standing and historic neighborhoods that, ironically, first attracted these events.”
The Coalition is preparing for a prolonged legal battle with the Save Highlands Committee but also the North Carolina General Assembly as legislators explore proposed legislation that would prohibit local governments from passing any restrictions on STRs in residential neighborhoods.
“As you might imagine, the proponents of STRs in R-1 neighborhoods are powerful — think wedding vendors, Airbnb, VRBO, and real estate rental companies,” Henson said.
The Saving Highlands Committee claims Mayor Pat Taylor nor any of the commissioners have come to the table to negotiate or find common ground.
“In effect, all remaining options for cordially protecting the rights of property owners and saving Highlands have been exhausted. We firmly believe the law is on our side regarding this issue,” the committee wrote in a letter to residents.
However, Taylor told The Smoky Mountain News last month that the discussion is far from over. Following a Sept. 16 closed meeting of the town board, Taylor signed a fee agreement with Craig Justus with Van Winkle Law Firm in Asheville. Justus will be reviewing and advising the town board on the current residential ordinances related to STRs, lodging and will provide legal advice as the review of STRs in residential areas moves forward.
• The next Town of Highlands Commissioner meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 21, via Zoom. The STR topic is listed on the agenda.
• For more information about the Save Highlands Committee, visit www.savehighlands.net.
• For more information on the Highlands Neighborhood Coalition, visit www.highlandsneighborhoodcoalition.com.