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Huntsville investigating cap on short term rentals

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“Short term rental accommodations (STRA) are destroying the very fabric of our community.”

That from concerned and frustrated resident, Michael Walmsley, addressing Huntsville town council this month.

Walmsley presented to council on behalf of his community, Otter Lake, a small spring-fed lake measuring about two kilometres in circumference.

Walmsley says of the 20 homes on the private road, five have been sold in the past eight months, two are up for sale, and another is about to be listed. While one owner is currently licenced as an STRA, he says three new owners are already advertising their properties as STRAs despite not being licenced by the town.

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“That means that currently, 20 per cent of the residences on our road are short term rental accommodations, and with more residences up for sale every week, that number seems to be on an increasing trend,” says Walmsley. “We’re at a crucial point on Otter Lake Road, where the number of rental properties will soon outnumber permanent residences.”

According to Walmsley, with each rental property fitting about 10 people each, that means up to 40 strangers in the small community at any given time.

Walmsley adds that given the high nightly cost to rent those properties, renters react “with a definite sense of entitlement” to cautions from neighbouring property owners, on matters such as renting during COVID-19 lockdowns, advertising without a license, renting without a license, and making campfires during fire bans. “We paid a lot of money to be here and we can do whatever we want,” he quotes of the renters.

Walmsey says the road to enter the small community is owned by a resident who has recently put the land up for sale. “Worst case scenario, AirBnB purchases the road, and we end up with [their] resort community on our side of the lake,” he says.

He adds that as the start of the Mary Lake watershed, damage done to Otter Lake by irresponsible renters could potentially result in “watershed disaster.”

Walmsley had three asks for council: to stop issuing STRA licences on Otter Lake, to revoke existing licences in the community, and to enforce “severe penalties” on property owners and rental companies which operate or advertise unlicenced.

Councillor Dan Armour says this is a matter that council will need to address, noting that it affects many lakes in the area. Councillor Bob Stone says the town needs to “come down hard” on those who operate without licences or cause issues, adding that councillors share Walmsley’s frustration, hearing from residents that “Huntsville is changing, but not necessarily for the better.”

Responding to a question from Councillor Brian Thompson, the town’s Director of Development Services Kirstin Maxwell says STRA licences are valid until Dec. 31 of each year, and the town can currently only revoke them if an infraction happens. She notes that licence reinstatements are handled by a separate committee and that many municipalities are moving to regulate STRAs the way Huntsville has.

Councillor Tim Withey says the town needs to better fund its bylaw department to deal with issues like this, and that fining rental companies directly would address the excuse of property owners “having no idea what’s going on.” Councillor Jason FitzGerald added that people who deliberately ignore town requests to get licenced should be barred from ever having one.

“I think we are probably going to go back to the drawing board in seeing how we can tighten up this program, and maybe even change it in certain respects,” says Mayor Karin Terziano. “What you’re describing isn’t really what we want to see happening.”

In the end, council directed staff to meet with Otter Lake residents to provide information and education about bylaw enforcement– to ensure incidents are reported in a way that leads to penalties for bad actors– as well as investigate options to restrict the number of STRA licences.

“I see this opportunity really as only the start of actions to end the existence of STRAs on Otter Lake,” says Walmsley. “Because if it happens on Otter Lake, and in our community, it’s only a matter of time before this happens on your lake or in your community.”

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