Sister Bay Proposes Major Changes to STR Regulations

After convening for a lengthy discussion in closed session, the Sister Bay Plan Commission emerged Tuesday night with a new direction in its regulation of short-term rentals (STRs) that will go to public hearing for review on May 23. 

Administrator Julie Schmelzer announced that the commission had reached consensus on a new short-term-rental ordinance that will require a seven-day minimum stay and a maximum of 181 days available throughout the village for any newly issued licenses. 

Sister Bay joins Liberty Grove and Baileys Harbor as communities that are currently reviewing their STR ordinances in response to concerns about their role in rising home prices, workforce-housing shortages and complaints from neighbors. And Sevastopol adopted an amended ordinance last week that contains conditions designed to stem the growth of future STRs.

In the Sister Bay ordinance under consideration, existing operators in good standing will be grandfathered in to operate in their existing manner. Schmelzer said that on-site inspections of properties have found that many property owners are lying to the village about their operations. 

“We found that people are falsifying their documents, and they are incomplete sometimes,” she said. As a result, “we will be exercising our right for enforcement and rescinding licenses.”

The village currently has a three-strikes policy for code violations. The proposed changes would add the ability of the village to penalize operators for being abusive to staff. Schmelzer said village staff have been treated poorly and threatened by operators during the past year for enforcing village rules and requirements. 

“Disrespectful and abusive language will not be tolerated,” Schmelzer said. “We need to treat each other with respect.”

As of now, plan commission chair Denise Bhirdo said the commission’s intent is for the grandfathered licenses to expire with the sale of a property or the death of the license holder, so the grandfathered license would not pass on to heirs. 

The proposed changes will also require STRs to come into compliance with the parking requirements of other similar businesses operating in the village. That means that STRs in single-family homes will be required to have a minimum of four parking stalls and paved driveways. 

Before the village went into closed session, it heard from many operators who are opposed to ordinance changes, but also from people who are opposed to vacation-rental businesses operating in residential neighborhoods. 

Prior to 2017, Sister Bay regulated where vacation rentals could operate in the village through its zoning code, but in 2017, the Wisconsin Legislature – through an amendment to the state budget bill under Gov. Scott Walker – made it legal to operate STRs in single-family residential zoning districts. That budget bill invalidated any conflicting existing ordinances, such as Sister Bay’s. 

Several residents spoke about protecting the character of their neighborhoods and implored the village to slow the growth of STRs.

“We live in a residential neighborhood with lots of little kids,” said Lori Harf of Cherrywood Court. “Our subdivision says it’s for residential purposes only, but the homes behind us are now going to be STRs.” 

Paula Anschutz, the owner of the Sister Bay Bowl who has been working for two years to build affordable rental homes in the area, said the village should be careful not to view STRs only in a negative light and should consider how to build workforce housing while still allowing STRs.

“Limiting it by days without coming up with other solutions is not going to make people make that house available for year-round housing,” she said.

Susan Cattey owns a property on Spring Road, and like many, she said her family uses it as a way for her to get a foot in the community and a place for family. 

“We rent it weekly to offset the costs and to have it for our 10 grandkids to come to,” she said, but she also said she recognized the community is “at a huge crossroads. Can you find a compromise that helps you slow down the craziness but not feel like you hate us all? Some of us plan on retiring here, too. This isn’t ‘us against them.’”

Eric Spychalski of Geneva, Illinois, said he owns a vacation rental in Sister Bay but does not consider it a commercial enterprise.

“We purchased in Sister Bay because we hope to retire here,” he said. “Renting is what allows us to achieve our goals and dreams to move here.”

After the meeting, Bhirdo said she appreciated such viewpoints, but she countered them by adding the perspective of those who are struggling to find housing. 

“We hear a lot about people’s goals and dreams of retiring here someday,” she said. “But what about the people who live here, who were born here, who work here, who are struggling here and can’t buy a home right now?” 

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