What’s new on the plateau

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Patrick Taylor Highlands Mayor

We are about to see 2021 fade away and 2022 rise before us. Looking back, even though it had some challenging moments, 2021 was much better than the COVID dominated 2020.

Looks like the Omicron variant will spread this winter. We are better prepared now than in the past.  Our vaccination and booster initiatives have been critical factors.  Vaccinations are still available on Thursdays at the Highlands Recreation Department. I urge everyone to get vaccinated and get a booster.  Being fully vaccinated increases a person’s odds by 75% of not contracting the Omicron variant. Also, it exponentially increases the probability of booster folks not being hospitalized in break through cases.

Testing is another important factor in curtailing Omicron.  Testing is still available at the Highlands Community Center on Wednesdays, and in Cashiers on Tuesdays at their community center.  I was recently tested before running a road race.  It was a simple and easy process.  

There are several items in this current town budget that will not happen before the next fiscal year. First, the town had partnered with the county in replacing the existing old lights at the ball field with new LED lights which can be focused more on the field. In the spirit of the Dark Sky program the new systems would have reduced the spillover effect that the current lights produce.

The installer began the replacement process by digging holes for the new light poles. Workers hit solid rock a few feet below ground.  The engineering specifications and codes required that the new light poles be buried about 12 feet. The rock prevented meeting that requirement.  The alternative was to drill and shoot (dynamite) the holes into the rock. That process was a budget buster by doubling the cost of the project. It has been put on hold and may be reviewed again in the next budget cycle. Hopefully an alternative light system can be developed.

The other project that was modified had to do with the installation of more natural LED street lights. They, too, address the Dark Sky goal by focusing the lights downward onto a specific area. The old halogen street lights were replaced.  There was one change. Originally, the plan called for lights that could be dimmed so certain areas could have lower luminosity.  The manufacturer informed the town that they were experiencing a high failure rate with the dimmable lights. We decided to not purchase dimmable fixtures.

I have set up a new personal website. The address is Askmayorpat.com.  It’s not an official town website.  I will be operating and personally funding it.  I will answer questions from the website. Some questions may be addressed in this column or on my radio show. The person asking the question will not be identified. The website may also provide updates and weekly email blasts of my activities and ideas. Happy New Year! 

1.6.2022 – I read a recent column where the writer claimed that the residents of Dog Mountain Subdivision sought annexation for the purpose of stopping STRs [short term rentals] in their neighborhood.  That annexation occurred back in 2011/12. I wasn’t the mayor then, but am not aware of any legal action filed by Dog Mountain residents against the town then or now.

That claim motivated me to research the history of short term rentals.  Some folks in town have contended Highlands has a long history of STRs.  I think there are several categories of rentals that tend to get muddled together.  Yes, Highlands has had a long tradition of vacation rentals, but the new trend driven by growth of VBRO and Airbnb was not the original driving force for vacation rentals in Highlands.

Highlands has been both a tourist and a retreat community.  There are distinctions between the two.  People would come to Highlands during the spring, summer and stay to fall to get away from regions with extreme heat, mosquitos and other distractions. These folks loved the mountains, the climate and simple lifestyle.

The Highlands Inn had a large group of folks who stayed there the entire summer. Other folks would rent a home for a season, or for several months, weeks at a time, or for a week.  With this retreat model, Highlands did, and still enjoys the seasonal residents that come, live and become a vital part of the town for part of the year. Highlands has always had a transient tourist industry where folks would visit our hotels.  In the past we had some bed and breakfast tourist homes, but they are no longer in operation.

VRBO was originally founded in 1995 in Breckenridge, Colorado for renting ski condos. The original company was purchased by Homeaway in 2006.  Homeaway was acquired by Expedia in 2015 and then rebranded as VRBO in 2019. That year a national expansion and media blitz was launched to include more remote communities beyond city areas.

With the initial concept of renting rooms in existing homes, Airbnb was founded in San Francisco in 2008 to respond to a workforce housing shortage.  In 2013 Airbnb expanded their operations by creating a media document called Neighborhoods which showcased properties in 23 major cities.

In 2018  “Airbnb Plus” was launched which promoted and vetted, well designed, luxury homes to rent for a short period. This effort was followed by the creation of “Beyond” which featured luxury vacation rentals.

At about this same time,  late in 2018, the city of  Asheville passed an ordinance banning short term rentals.  I followed this issue, and suspected VRBO and Airbnb would at some point impact Highlands. That impact was fast, especially during the pandemic in 2020. Now the town is reviewing this issue.

The notion that the Dog Mountain annexation was in order to stop STRs is a stretch of the imagination.  The vast majority of people had no idea about what STRs, Airbnb and VRBO even meant back in 2011/12.  Highlanders did know about vacation rentals that were administered primarily by local real estate companies and property managers, but these new national companies were, at best, limited start up endeavors.

One concern I have is that corporations and investments companies will become even more involved in this trend.  That drives my position that Highlands needs thoroughly examine the short term rental industry within our town limits.  While we have had transient visitors and tourist for decades, I do not want to see this national, corporate model overwhelm our residential communities.

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