WELLSBORO — Borough council here denied a conditional use request to use two properties as vacation rentals.
At a hearing on July 27, Christina and Jeremy VanDergrift sought a variance to use the properties at 145 Main Street and 65 Central Avenue as vacation rentals without being owner occupied.
All four council members present, John Sticklin, Craig West, Lou Prevost and Mike Wood, voted down the request after a 10-minute executive session. The solicitor, William Stokes III, also attended.
While the council denied the request because the short-term rental will not be owner-occupied, most of the comments centered on the potential impact in other areas.
Councilman Lou Prevost said short-term rentals not only impact the hotel industry, but also the neighborhood character. Short-term rentals eliminate neighbors and have had a “tremendous negative impact” on other communities, affecting property values, quality of life and community character, he said.
“This community is what it is because of the ordinance,” said Prevost. “We’re trying to preserve the character.”
He also raised concerns about renters from outside the area bringing coronavirus into Wellsboro, creating a local outbreak.
According to Borough Manager Scot Boyce Jr., the 2018 zoning ordinance prohibits non-owner occupied rentals except in areas zoned as rural residential, commercial business and highway commercial. The VanDergrift properties are located in the historic and town residential areas.
Other vacation rentals operate within the borough without an owner on site, Christina VanDergrift told council. Those, said Prevost, were operating before the 2018 ordinance and are “grandfathered in.”
“If Wellsboro wants to become a haven for short-term rentals, we are gambling the character of our town,” Prevost said.
The rental houses that began operating after 2018 may come under scrutiny. Boyce said the borough will be reviewing the vacation rentals in the borough. Those that are non-compliant will be asked to cease operations and seek a variance.
Christina VanDergrift said she is unsure about her next step, but was surprised by the decision. As an owner of several rental properties and businesses, she works to promote the area and bring people to visit who sometimes relocate to Wellsboro.
“The younger generation wants to stay separate; they don’t want to stay in a hotel,” she said. “Wellsboro has to evolve over time or (the tourists) will go elsewhere.
VanDergrift said she and her husband plan to use Airbnb and Vrbo booking sites. They would screen all prospective clients before accepting the booking. Visitors would be able to contact them by cell phone, text or email in case of a problem during their stay.
Both VanDergrift and Julie Henry VanNess, executive director of the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce, said there are different types of visitors: those who stay in hotels, those who camp and those who rent houses. An insufficient number of any of these types of facilities could send visitors to other areas, they said.
“Right now, the place is jumping,” said VanNess. “Unfortunately, people are not wanting to stay in the hotels right now.”
The Vandergrifts have 30 days to appeal the decision to the Zoning Hearing Board, made up of Blake Maxson, Tim Sick and Harland Crawford.