In recent weeks, much has been written about the issue of short-term rentals/home sharing/Airbnb in Lake Bluff. Yet, there are still some questions that remain unanswered. I submit the following answers to questions I have heard from a number of people on this issue.
Don’t people have a constitutional right to do what they want with their homes?
Property rights aren’t absolute and, no, people cannot do whatever they want with their homes, particularly in suburban municipalities. Imagine the chaos if they could. In most suburbs, and certainly in Lake Bluff, property rights are legally curtailed through zoning. Zoning is meant to stabilize property values, particularly residential properties, relieve congestion, increase safety in buildings and on the streets, make conducting business more efficient by concentrating businesses in certain districts, and make life healthier.
But home sharing and short-term renting has been going on in Lake Bluff for a while with no problems. Shouldn’t we worry about what does happen instead of what might happen?
Indeed we should, and we do. That’s why we have the building code and zoning code that we do today. Many years ago, municipal governments realized that people’s homes were not constructed to conduct business and lacked the safety measures that commercial buildings were required to have (i.e., exit signs, multiple exits, fire extinguishers, fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire doors, etc.) so it was simply unsafe to allow people to conduct business in their homes without some limitations. This realization came as a result of things that did happen – like fires – and changes were made to the zoning code as a result. In fact, there is a long list of commercial activity – even that which would be conducive to a home-based business – the current zoning code prohibits in residential districts, even with a special use permit. Insurance agents and brokers, lawyers, tax preparation services, miscellaneous business services, and photographic studios are all prohibited in residential districts under the current code. You can check out Section 10-13-3, Zoning Chart in the Lake Bluff Zoning Code for a comprehensive list.
Lots of people work from home. Isn’t home sharing/short-term renting an in-home occupation allowable under the current code?
The Home Occupation section of the Lake Bluff Municipal Code does allow for small businesses that do not require a special use permit to be run out of private residences, with certain limitations. However, the Home Occupation ordinance prohibits more than four (4) clients or customers in the home at any one time. So that means the following has to happen:
- the village alters the ordinance to allow more people to be present at a short-term rental/Airbnb than in other small in-home businesses that are allowed under the very same ordinance, which would be arbitrary. How would the village board justify that decision?
- the village changes the definition of “client” or “customer” so as not to include “guest at a short-term rental,” which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Since when is a paying guest not a client or customer?
- the village board will have to adopt a new definition of “hotel” because as of today short-term rentals are considered hotels that require a special use permit (hence the cease and desist letter).
If none of the above happen, Airbnb hosts that can accommodate more than four guests will be forced to violate the ordinance and hope the village looks the other way, which is no way to operate a village or a business.
So are short-term rentals hotels or not?
It depends. Back on May 10, 2017 the village issued a cease and desist letter based entirely on the need for a special use permit to operate a “hotel” in a residential district, something none of the five Airbnb hosts had bothered to procure. But by June, the PCZBA had drafted an ordinance for short-term rentals that changed the definition of “hotel” to exclude short-term rentals. If adopted, hotels in Lake Bluff will be limited to buildings with six bedrooms or more, which is odd because there is no rationale for six bedrooms versus five – other than the biggest Airbnb in town happens to have five bedrooms. Interestingly, this also means the 7% Hotel Occupancy Tax will no longer apply to short-term rentals.
What about Lake Bluff’s history of boarding houses and hotels?
Lake Bluff does have a history of boarding houses and hotels like the Hotel Irving in the 1890s. But back then, Lake Bluff was also “dry,” dancing was generally frowned upon and women couldn’t vote. People most certainly also slaughtered chickens in their backyards in 1890 – I know my great-grandmother was doing so well into the 1940s – but I don’t hear anyone arguing to allow that again. When you think logically about it, the presence of a hotel in Lake Bluff in 1890 shouldn’t have anything to do with whether homeowners can operate hotels in their homes in 2017.
So where does that leave us?
It’s hard to say. At the last meeting of the PCZBA on this issue, the members concluded they didn’t have enough guidance from the board to proceed so they sent it back to the board for direction. No one seems to know how the board is going to proceed, although there is some evidence they might declare short-term renting and home sharing “in-home occupations.”
What do you think the board should do?
The board needs to take a step back and look at how it has handled this from the beginning. It has appeared to be a desired outcome in search of a process, much like Block 3. Clearly, it is problematic for the board to declare short-term renting an “in-home occupation” simply to accommodate a few homeowners when so many other residents are prohibited from using their homes to make money in other ways. Does the board intend on throwing out the zoning code and starting from scratch? Does it intend on ignoring the life safety concerns that were the impetus for the zoning code in the first place? To do so would be an abdication of its primary responsibility to its constituents to look out for their health, safety and welfare. Life safety isn’t some pesky concern to be brushed aside when it is deemed inconvenient; it is a serious concern that is at the root of the residential zoning and building code that we tacitly agreed to live with when we chose to live in Lake Bluff.
The only way forward is to restrict short-term rentals to 90 days, with no special use permit. Anything else will require the board to take actions that are, at worst, questionable in their motivation or, at best, arbitrary. As taxpayers, we deserve – and should demand – better from our elected officials.
Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor represent the writers’ opinions and not necessarily those of Daily North Shore. We encourage readers to post Letters to the Editor — please use this link to do so.