Council opposition a head-scratcher

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

Councilwoman Negron hits the nail on the head. These are our neighborhoods, taxpaying full-time city residents who do not want their quality of life upset or destroyed. The three members of Council who have personal experiences elsewhere regarding AirBnBs and opposed it should reflect on this. The same shoe doesn’t fit in every community, and when your own residents petition you for redress, then it’s time to handle this the way it should be. They’re complicating a very simple solution, which is that of requiring short-term lodging to have the owner present. That is what is required for a traditional B&B, why not for AirBnB?

And, who will handle the complaints? Who will monitor these situations? Code enforcement officials are under-staffed according to the chief code enforcement official, and you’re going to create even more burdensome regulations?

I scratch my head constantly when government at any level can’t apply common sense solutions to issues.

Dana

Presence of the homeowner the sticking point for proposed short-term rental legislation

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from Christina Tatu, “Bethlehem Council fails to pass short-term rental regulations, questions whether they are too restrictive.” Morning Call, August 5, 2020.

Bethlehem City Council deadlocked on a zoning amendment that would institute strict conditions on short-term lodging in the city, including requiring the homeowner to be present when a room is being rented.

The ordinance, up for introduction at Tuesday’s virtual City Council meeting, failed to pass by a vote of 3-3. Several council members have used services such as Airbnb and questioned whether the ordinance was overreaching.

Council President Adam Waldron, Councilman Bryan Callahan and Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith voted against. Councilmen J. William Reynolds and Michael Colon, and Councilwoman Olga Negron, were in favor. Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt was absent.

Waldron, who has several small children, said sometimes Airbnb is the only option if his family wants to go on vacation.

“I think this goes too far, and I think it punishes people who are doing a good job of renting out their homes. They are encouraging people to come to Bethlehem and spend their money and visit our downtown,” he said. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I am willing to continue conversation about a way we can go after some of the problems regarding short-term rentals.”

Crampsie Smith said she knows people who rely on Airbnb rentals to supplement their income. She also said it’s not uncommon for visitors to rent an entire house so they can have some privacy on their getaway.

Negron said she too has used Airbnb, but it’s usually in a beach setting and not in quiet residential neighborhoods like those in Bethlehem.

“These are topics I have heard a lot of members of our community speaking on and they are concerned,” she said. “I believe what’s in front of me goes along with the residents’ request to make things tougher.”

There are 25 registered short-term rentals in the city. A search of Airbnb pulls up at least 18 more that are not registered, city officials said.

Some of the restrictions in the proposed ordinance include limiting a guest’s stay to no more than 30 consecutive days, allowing no more than two rooms to be rented at a time, and requiring the homeowner be present during rentals.

The ordinance also restricts short-term rentals to homes constructed and occupied by Jan 1, 2020, and requires the property to have two off-street parking spaces. One additional space is required if more than one room is rented. The parking requirement does not apply to properties in the commercial business district.

It attempts to provide a way for residents to engage in such rental arrangements, while protecting the integrity of Bethlehem’s neighborhoods, city officials have said. The city planning commission recommended the zoning amendment to council in January, and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission gave a favorable review of the proposal later that month.

The reasoning behind having the owner occupy the house during the rental is that they would have a vested interest in who they are renting to and would not allow inappropriate behavior or wild parties. City officials also hoped the ordinance would deter investors from buying homes in the historic district solely for the purpose of converting them into short-term rentals.

Callahan and Negron asked whether the ordinance could be amended to require the homeowner only be present for a certain amount of time instead of during the entire length of a guest’s stay, but city Planning Director Darlene Heller said that would be difficult to enforce.

Any amendment could also table the ordinance for a couple more months as it makes its way through the approval process again.

“the off-street parking requirement is too restrictive for the Mrs. McVey’s of the City”

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Alan Lowcher, Esq. concentrates on real estate and land use law, speaks on the life of Abraham Lincoln, presents history-themed “lessons for lawyers” through the NJ Bar Association, and is a member of several associations promoting a deeper understanding of American history.

Gadfly:

The proposed Short Term Lodging Facility (STL) ordinance eliminates “whole house” short term rentals, which practice is what brought this issue to the attention of residents and City Council.

My concern with the ordinance is that the off-street parking requirement is too restrictive for the Mrs. McVey’s of the City:  good neighbors with an unused bedroom (or two) to rent out in order to help with upkeep, or just to be an ambassador of good will to travelers to Bethlehem.

Instead of 4, 5 or 6 bedrooms that could be used for short term stays, each bedroom equating to a automobile vying for a parking space,  now it is perhaps one or two automobiles.

Many otherwise qualifying STL facilities do not have two (or three) off-street parking spaces.

The proposed 2-bedroom limitation adequately addresses the parking concerns.

I would encourage City Council to re-consider the off-street parking requirement.

Alan

The proposed short-term lodging ordinance: “a balancing act between protecting neighborhoods and individual property rights”

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City Council held a public hearing on the short-term lodging issue March 3. Once again, Sara provides us with a good overview of the hearing. Note the contribution by Gadfly follower Kate McVey.

Sara K. Satullo, “Is Bethlehem going too far to restrict Airbnb rentals? Council and some residents aren’t sure.” Lehighvalleylive.com, March 8, 2020.

For 30 years, Kate McVey’s lived in her four-bedroom home steps from Moravian College’s campus, taking great pride in her Bethlehem home. With room to spare, McVey’s discovered that renting a single room on Airbnb helps her keep her home updated and her bills paid.

“I’d like to think I am a good neighbor,” McVey told Bethlehem’s City Council last week. Her guests have spanned all ages, exposing her to wonderful people in town for a job interview or a special event, she said. Folks often Uber from the airport or bus station and don’t take up a parking spot on Lorain Avenue where parking can be at a premium, McVey said.

McVey was one of three Airbnb hosts who spoke at a city council hearing Tuesday on a proposed zoning ordinance to share their concerns about a proposal to more tightly regulate the city’s short-term rental market. Bethlehem’s trying to rein in the practice of investors snatching up properties in the Historic District solely for renting them on home sharing sites like VRBO, Airbnb and HomeAway.

But residents and some members of council expressed concerns that the restrictions might go too far and inhibit legitimate home-sharing efforts, which the city says it doesn’t want to discourage. “This is a tourist city,” Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said. The quality of life for residents is paramount, but it is a shame a “few bad apples” are ruining the process, Crampsie Smith said.

Under the proposed changes, a homeowner must be living in their property, present for all rentals and renting no more than two rooms. A home could not be rented for more than 30 consecutive nights under the proposal and the city requires annual licensing and inspections. The proposed zoning change also requires two off-street parking spaces per home and a third space if two rooms are rented. This does not apply to homes in the central business district, per the proposal.

Councilman Bryan Callahan opposes investors offering up city properties on home-sharing websites, but he has no problem with a resident renting their house for a month while they are on vacation, he said.

The city currently has 20 short-term lodging facilities that are properly licensed and inspected. But a few online searches turn up plenty operating outside the bounds of the regulation.

The city currently has 20 short-term lodging facilities that are properly licensed and inspected. But a few online searches turn up plenty operating outside the bounds of the regulation.

Councilman J. William Reynolds called this a balancing act between protecting neighborhoods and individual property rights. Much of it depends on how a judge interprets the regulations, he said. It will be very difficult to prove someone is renting their owner-occupied home when they are away, Reynolds said.

Resolution on short-term lodging coming to Council Tuesday

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The phenomenon of Airbnb/short-term lodging/short-term rentals has been an acute issue for some people in the Northside Historic District, but it is also a concern for others as the “Town Square” essay by Paul Peuker that we published yesterday shows. In fact, Gadfly has concerns relative to his own neighborhood. (Click on Airbnb or Short-term lodging under Topics on the right-hand Gadfly sidebar for previous posts.)

New legislation for the zoning code that has been working its way to City Council was discussed at the Planning Commission on January 9 and will come to Council Tuesday night in the form of a resolution to collect all kinds of information before enacting the legislation.

10o Resolution-Short Term Lodging Zoning Text Amendments (2)

At the moment Gadfly doesn’t have copies of the two exhibits mentioned in the resolution coming forward Tuesday, but here is an “unclean,” marked up draft of the latest revision of the proposed new addition to the zoning ordinance (Housing Ordinance 1741 on short-term lodging has been in operation for a year or two).  The January 9 Planning Commission recommended no changes in this draft. It just may be a bit confusing for you to read.

Here is the City Planning Director helpfully summarizing for the PC (and for us!) the background leading to the upcoming resolution and proposed legislation:

Here to Gadfly’s mind are some key components of the draft zoning legislation that followers might be interested in:

  • Owner-occupied (a big concern in the Northside Historic District): Short Term Lodging use is only permitted in an owner occupied single family dwelling existing and occupiable by persons as of January 1, 2020 or, for lots exceeding one( 1 )acre in size,in an accessory or outbuilding structure existing and occupiable by persons as of January 1 ,2020.
  • Parking: Two offstreet parking spaces are required for the dwelling. One additional space is required if more than one room is rented. These off-street requirements shall not apply to any short term lodging facility in a CB Zoning District.
  • Number of rooms: No more than 2 rooms on any lot may be offered for rent in any short term lodging facility regardless of the size of the structure or number of bedrooms.
  • Renovation: No exterior alteration or expansion shall be made to any building for purposes of furnishing or expanding short term lodging, except as may be required for purpose of sanitation, handicapped accessibility, historic rehabilitation or safety.

Bruce Haines and the Gadfly had suggestions for changes and questions, but since the upcoming action by Council is just a resolution to collect information, Gadfly will save that information for a later post.

But what are you seeing and thinking? Responses invited.

“Airbnb is good for Bethlehem”

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A “Town Square” in today’s Morning Call. A thorny issue as you can see if you browse past posts in this thread. There’s a short-term lodging ordinance on the agenda for Tuesday’s City Council meeting. So it’s time to pay attention. Gadfly will post again on this issue in the near future, before the meeting.

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Airbnb 2

Airbnb 3

Bethlehem’s Catch-22: what attracts can also erode

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Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

It’s a “Catch 22” situation in Bethlehem, maybe more than ever before. What is attracting visitors, new residents, and development to Bethlehem is a city with many opportunities and amenities. However, with each of those advances it begins to erode the very quality of life and aura that Bethlehem offers. When will enough be enough? Individually an AirBnB, an out-of-context development, non-compliance may not seem that intrusive. But, when you start looking at the sum total of what is happening, the very characteristics that people find attractive become tarnished, and that sought-after quality of life is no longer maintained. Bethlehem has to be better by establishing standards so that those that come respect those that are already in place in Bethlehem. That is often not happening and is why residents are showing up to defend what they want and like about this town. Unfortunately, greed is often overwhelming what makes sense and builds a sound community, and some politicians are weak-kneed and often influenced by campaign contributions. We who are already here deserve better.

Dana

Concern that our original short-term lodging ordinance isn’t working

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In our last post in this series about the Planning Commission consideration of this proposed new Short-Term Lodging amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance, we listened to discussion led by one Commissioner about limiting the duration of a transient’s stay in short-term lodging and limiting the total time annually in which a home-owner could offer short-term lodging. Both questions related to the impact of short-term lodging on the quality of neighborhood life. Good.

Next, to understand the concern of Bruce Haines, managing partner of the Hotel Bethlehem — and “representing a neighborhood” — one has to back up to the passage in 2017 of the original attempt to control the perceived and experienced dangers of short-term lodging to the Northside Historical District represented by Airbnb: Article 1741.

Article 1741 was designed to address the concerns of neighbors about Airbnb (and no doubt similar businesses), and the current proposed zoning amendment requires that short-term lodging hosts must comply with “all aspects” of 1741.

So here’s Haines framing the purpose of 1741:

Haines’s present “beef,” if you will, is that the zoning amendment under consideration by the Planning Commission does nothing to address the shortcomings of 1741 (shortcomings of enforcement?). He identifies, for example, two specific properties in the Northside Historical District that have separate apartments and thus are not single family homes yet are licensed by the City for short-term lodging — even after being reported to the City.

“The ordinance that’s in place has been an utter failure . . . . and this isn’t going to help it. . . . The only time you should allow transient visitors in a residential community should be if they are sharing the space.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Haines seems to have run into the wall of compartmentalization. The Planning Commission chair focused just on the zoning amendment at that moment before the Commission and not this shortcoming of what we might call the “parent” 1741 ordinance.

And thus all Mr. Haines could do was make known his disappointment that persisting problems with short-term lodging in his neighborhood weren’t being addressed.

And so the long-standing “Airbnb” issue in the Northside Historical District is still not resolved despite legislation supposed to address their concerns.

The Planning Commission discusses the City short-term lodging proposal

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Your tax dollars at work!

Let’s look at the Planning Commission in action.

We looked at the “short-term lodging” ordinance newly proposed for the zoning code last time.

And Gadfly asked if it seemed reasonable, asked if you saw anything discussable.

Let’s suppose that almost all of us reading here are not offering short-term lodging.

One thing for us to think about is how this ordinance would affect you if you wanted to offer short-term lodging.

Gadfly, for instance, has a five-bedroom house. Suppose he wanted to offer two of them per the proposed ordinance for short-term lodging.

Is the new ordinance reasonable for his purpose? Yes, seems so.

But another thing to think about is how this ordinance would affect you and your mainly residential neighborhood if one or more of your neighbors went into the short-term lodging business.

Yeah, now there’s an issue Gadfly is familiar with.

A single woman on the block was offering short-term lodging in the early days of this business, before the others of us were familiar with the concept, and, besides a bit of a crimp in available parking sometimes, we were bothered by the coming and going of strange men at all hours of the night. It gave the neighborhood a different feel. An insecure feel.

Well, what did the Planning Commissioners see?

In this interesting clip, we see the Planning director frame the fair positive purpose of the ordinance (in a time in which affordable housing is an issue, this ordinance allows people to stay in their homes and make a few extra dollars) and then one of the Commissioners (Mr. Malozi) think out some potential problems.

We should note in passing that the Planning director says that when homes are owner occupied, there is no problem with short-term lodging — the problems come in situations when the owners don’t live there — that was the rub in the contentious issue in the Northside Historical District..

Mr. Malozi has two questions, the first being could a “transient” (the language of the ordinance) stay the 30 days allowed, leave for a day, and return for another permitted 30 days, and on and on. Gadfly is not sure he sees the problem here. Actually, he feels longer duration of transients might make the situation more comfortable for neighbors. You could get to know or at least recognize the transients, for instance.

The second question seemed more important to Gadfly. Should there be an upper limit of days that lodging could be offered? For instance, could you book your rooms 365 days a year? Hmmm. No specific upper limit was nailed down, but 90 days and 180 days were floated. Mr. Malozi, laudably, was concerned about the quality of the neighborhood with a high number of transients. Yeah, Gadfly gets that.

The PC seemed to favor a revision to accommodate concerns in regard to this second question and, unable to agree on a limitation, they tabled consideration till the next meeting.

Gadfly wondered about some limitation on the number of short-term lodging homes in a particular area. Gadfly lives near Moravian College, a good market, especially at certain times of the year. What if, for instance, instead of the just one short-termer on his block, there would be five. Now that would seriously change the neighborhood. And would be a great worry.

What do you think of the questions Mr. Malozi raised? See anything else?

We aren’t done yet with discussion at the meeting.

to be continued . . .

“This ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city”

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Dave Ruhf is a retired 35-year veteran of the Bethlehem Fire Department and avid traveler living the dream.

Gadfly:

I believe this ordinance as proposed would hinder visitation to our beautiful city during our festive events.

I for one use Homeaway or AirBnB to visit out national parks in the western portion of our country. My wife and I usually travel with another couple with smaller children requiring at minimum 3 bedrooms.

Under the proposed ordinance someone who travels as I do couldn’t rent a short-term residence.

An example: I rented 5 different residences when I visited the national parks in Utah, and my longest stay was 2 days at any one place.

The two-bedroom rule is detrimental in my opinion.

I suggest the authority having jurisdiction should investigate the average stays that people require when visiting vacation venues.

Dave

Here’s the proposed zoning amendment on short-term lodging

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We always go to the primary sources, right?

Here is the short-term lodging proposal for addition to the zoning ordinances that was presented by Ms. Heller, City Planning Director, at the December 12 Planning Commission meeting.

Short-Term Lodging amendment to the City Zoning Ordinance

Here also is the related housing ordinance 1741 currently in place governing short-term lodging.

Article 1741: Short Term Lodging Facilities

And here Ms. Heller goes over the highlights of the proposed zoning amendment for the Planning Commissioners.

  • Short-term lodging is the term we use for services like Airbnb and others.
  • We currently have a housing ordinance that addresses short-term lodging, been in place for 18 months or two years.
  • We do require that anyone operating short-term lodging be licensed.
  • We’re taking the opportunity now to carry some of those same provisions over into the zoning ordinance.
  • We have a definition for a short-term lodging facility and also for hotels so that the two are compatible.
  • We define where short-term lodging will be permitted.
  • If someone is renting out two bedrooms, we would require a third off-street parking space.
  • We are not allowing in this ordinance a rental of more than two bedrooms.
  • We would only be permitting in an owner occupied unit.
  • For a unit not occupied by the owner, we would not allow short-term lodging at all.
  • No more than two rooms can be offered for rent.
  • No exterior alterations.
  • If the unit is owner-occupied and you can meet these parameters, short-term lodging would be permitted.
  • We would not consider short-term lodging for any unoccupied or landlord-type scenario.

Sound reasonable? Whatta you see?

to be continued . . .

 

 

Airbnb . . . short-term lodging: why should we care?

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As we move into a series of posts on the short-term lodging proposal just introduced before the Planning Commission, Gadfly would like to recycle part of post from October 6, 2018, fourteen months ago, and just 3 weeks after Gadfly-became-Gadfly.

The Northside Historical District is not Gadfly’s neighborhood. It is not the neighborhood of you, the vast majority of Gadfly followers.

Why should we care what happens in the Northside Historical District?

First things first, why should the general “we” of the City care? Why is Gadfly spending time on this? Why should you read on if you don’t live in the Northside Historical District?

Good question, Gadfly.

And Gadfly answers that it has to do with the perfectly understandable concern over the nature of your neighborhood. Something everybody has or should have. Every time Gadfly uses that word “neighborhood,” he thinks with pleasure of Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers” (did you see the recent Tom Hanks’ movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”?). It’s about the quality of life in your neighborhood, about caring for and about your neighborhood, and “control” of your neighborhood. This is or should be a concern across the City and has much wider implications than just Airbnb.

Mr. Gadfly’s neighborhood is changing. Has changed. Of the 15 houses in Gadfly’s block, 6 are now rentals. Porch palings are missing. Parking is harder. Some sidewalks want to hurt you. Mother Nature is sometimes the only sidewalk snow-shoveler. Glaring, spooky feral cats have taken over the once carnival-like street (40 kids playing there at one point). Yards aren’t all that well taken care of. Gadfly’s lawn is “crop-circled” by dogs on leashes. Where have all the flowers gone? Some porches have become utility sheds. We were once a tree-shaded lane; now Gadfly’s tree (“Secundus,” since it is a replacement) stands alone, sole respecter of City ordinance.

Poor maudlin Gadfly. He doesn’t live in the Northside Historical District. But he gets it. We all should get it. Neighborhoods change one rented house, one dog pee at a time. Often imperceptible change. Till one day it’s too late. Gadfly gets it. We all should get it. And be invested in what happens in the Northside Historical District.

It pays to fight for our neighborhoods. Gadfly always says that. You may have noticed.

We must speak up.

Airbnb has provided some of the most dynamic resident-involved meetings in Gadfly’s Council spectatordom history. Take a look at “Our neighborhoods are under attack” (the quote is Frank Boyer’s), about the September 4, 2018, meeting that Gadfly called “one of the best of the year . . . The air crackled. Tension was thick. The issue was urgent, resident commentators were passionate, Council was involved and concerned.”

It’s up to the City to protect our neighborhoods.

Whether it’s First Terrace or West Goepp or whatever, Gadfly will always be following “developments.”

Let’s see what’s going on with this proposed zoning ordinance.

to be continued . . .

Proposed zoning ordinance dusts off the Airbnb issue

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Short-term lodging, short-term rentals, home-sharing: sometimes conveniently referred to by the short-hand of Airbnb, the company with which this practice is most associated.

Airbnb locations in Bethlehem

“The Uber of the hospitality market, Airbnb acts as an online broker, connecting people who need a place to stay with hosts who have a spare bedroom, apartment or a full house to rent.”
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The Airbnb issue is before us again. It’s been out of sight for over a year. Brought back by a proposal introduced at the Planning Commission December 12 for a change in the zoning code to complement an ordinance passed last year.

We’re going to spend several posts on this proposal. So it’s time to refresh ourselves on the background.

Click Airbnb under Topics on the right-hand Gadfly sidebar for access to previous posts.

For a deep background timeline, see: The Airbnb Controversy (1)

Though the roots of this controversy long precede Gadfly-becoming-Gadfly, the issue seems to have begun with neighbors’ reacting to a specific Bethlehem couple in the Northside historical district renting their home (and then homes) on a short-term basis.

In the next post we will want to ask why all of us should be attentive to what’s happening in one section of the City.

Charles Malinchak, “Bethlehem planners delay recommendations on short-term lodging changes.” Morning Call, December 13, 2019.

Bethlehem is considering a proposal to regulate short-term rentals — akin to renting rooms or whole houses to overnight guests — in its zoning code for the first time. While the city has an ordinance to license such uses, the new ordinance would actually spell out in what zoning districts they can be.

The proposed changes are in an zoning amendment aimed at what is being called “short-term lodging” which the commission discussed, but members determined at least two sections of the regulations need to be fined tuned. The two questions the commission requested be looked into further were how many days per year the home or room can be rented and what zoning districts should the activity be permitted.

According to a copy of the proposal, a short-term lodging facility is a single family home occupied by the owner who rents no more than two bedrooms for up to 30 days. The home would not be licensed as a hotel or a bed and breakfast and no exterior alterations or expansions of the home would be permitted to expand the rental operation, according to the amendment. The areas where the rental activity would be permitted or with a special exception permit include the following zoning districts: rural residential, single family residential and medium and high density residential.

Hotel Bethlehem Co-Partner and city resident Bruce Haines told the Planning Commission that the amendment doesn’t really mesh with an existing ordinance regulating housing. “The point is, these places need to be single family homes where the visitor has access to the entire house like the kitchen, living room and dining room,’’ he said after the meeting. One of the problems, he said, is that several homes in the center city historic district are already operating under the pretense of short-term lodging but are actually apartments with no access to the rest of the house.

The commission will continue discussion of the issue and possibly make recommendations at its January meeting. Those recommendations would be forwarded to City Council. The city began looking at the zoning issue after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case earlier this year that ruled in favor a Monroe County municipality’s zoning of short-term lodging. The city’s current licensing ordinance is under appeal in Northampton County Court.

The ordinance was created after residents complained about the houses being rented out in their neighborhoods. Critics say they have no problem with homeowners licensed to rent out a bedroom or their house to overnight guests, but oppose investors buying homes for that sole purpose, creating a commercial intrusion into their neighborhood.

to be continued . . .