More regulation on short-term rentals

By on July 10, 2019

Ephrata Township seeks zoning amendments to limit Airbnb-type rentals, especially farm and residential accessory buildings 

Mixing tourism with operating farms may not be in anybody’s best interests.

That was the opinion Clark Stauffer, Chairman of the Ephrata Township Board of Supervisors, shared at the board’s June 4 meeting.

The board has been examining a proposed short-term rental ordinance for the past six months, Stauffer said, adding that he would like to move forward with a draft.

The supervisors asked township staff to get input from the planning commission before finalizing the draft ordinance.

“Because of the seriousness of this, I think we need to get something accomplished,” Stauffer said.

One issue that had been facing the supervisors is if short-term rental units can be created by converting an accessory building, such as those found on a farm, into a vacation habitat.
The short answer is “no.”

“For the time being, we’ll allow a short-term-rental in a residence, but not in an accessory building,” Stauffer said.

The board has directed staff to move forward with finalizing a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would allow short-term rental units only by special exception approval by the zoning hearing board in existing single-family dwellings located in the residential low, medium, and high-density zoning districts, mixed-use zoning district, and agricultural zoning district. But converting an existing accessory building or erecting a structure for the purpose of a short-term-rental would not be permitted.

Township manager Steve Sawyer said the supervisors looked into similar ordinances from surrounding townships to get some direction for their own short-term rental ordinance, and to look into other conditions they might use to limit the conversion of accessory structures.

Sawyer provided the commission with two different versions of the draft ordinance. Both versions would permit short-term-rentals by special exception in the agricultural district, residential districts, and the mixed use district.

If the draft allows short-term-rentals in the agricultural zone, the applicant would need to give a safety plan acceptable to the zoning hearing board.

The draft has had some conditions included one for converting an accessory structure to a STR, such as requiring a large lot size, setbacks, and land development plan approval, in order to reduce the impact on neighboring properties.

Sawyer said other municipal ordinances he reviewed restrict STRs to existing single-family dwelling units.

“I have concerns,” said Chairman Clark Stauffer. “With the conversion of accessory buildings, there are a lot of safety issues concerned when you do this, when you put agricultural and residential together.”

Stauffer said he was recently told of a situation where a poisonous herbicide was sprayed on a field and (non-farming) people walked through that field, and took their dog, too.

“That was some really dangerous material,” Stauffer said, and added he can envision more problems like that in the future if they don’t take care with the short-term rental ordinance.

“That is my real concern,” Stauffer said. “Agriculture is our biggest occupation and can be very dangerous.”

Visitors who know little about farming, but rent an accessory building could go traipsing through the property and get hurt, he said.
Supervisor Tony Haws weighed in on the issue.

“I started talking to people in the farming community and I’m hearing much the same; ‘we don’t mind it, but we’re concerned about safety,’“ Haws said. “Whether its spraying chemicals or if they have to work in the fields at night with large equipment, there could be times when it’s not safe.”

Supervisor J.Tyler Zerbe noted that the township does not allow businesses on farms that aren’t related to farming.

Sawyer said some home-businesses are allowed in the agricultural district but require approval from the zoning hearing board.

The question of short-term-rentals was proposed a few months ago by township resident Rebecca Branlee of the 200 block of Royer Road. She owns a 10-acre property located in the agricultural zone and would like to convert an existing barn into a STR unit.

Branlee and her husband own a bicycle company that conducts bike tours in the farming community, and participants could use the short-term-rental on the Branlee property during their journey.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, Branlee was accompanied by her attorney, Claudia Shank. Shank said the ordinance has built-in security in it by allowing the zoning hearing board to review each situation.

“We share those concerns,” Shank said. “Your ordinance has a lot of requirements before an accessory building can be converted. If you approve this, I don’t believe you’ll have a lot of accessory buildings popping up in your township.”

Because the owners of the property to be used as a rental must be on the property at the time of the rental, they can tell the guests what the rules are when they check in, Shank said.
Stauffer wasn’t sold on the idea.

“How long will this continue that you allow people to come in your home, with your valuables,” Stauffer said. “I just think we’re going down the wrong path and I don’t think farmers will do this because of the liability involved.”

Stauffer added another concern.

“Today, animals are as valuable to people as their children and if you have dogs walking through fields that have been sprayed, you’re going to have problems,” Stauffer said.

Shank said all those concerns would be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
Farmer Brian Martin of Royer Road also weighed in.

“This would essentially be putting new construction in an old shell (converting an accessory building),” Martin said. “So why are we even discussing this? You can’t put a dwelling on an ag-zoned property for renting.”

Stauffer advised Sawyer to draft an ordinance that does not allow Airbnbs and will not allow accessory buildings in agricultural zoning.

Sawyer will finalize the draft based on those motions, and that will be given to the county planning commission, then the township’s planning commission. After the board receives recommendations from the planning agencies, the board will schedule a public hearing to consider the zoning ordinance amendment. In another matter, township resident Margaret Miller of Summerlyn Drive asked if a portion of the street could be blocked by sawhorses in order for the neighborhood to hold a block party on Saturday, Aug. 3.

She presented a petition of more than 20 neighbors who are in favor of the idea.

Chairman Stauffer had concerns about emergency vehicles who might need to get through the area.

Last fall, residents of the Autumn Hills development had a similar request, which was granted by the supervisors. However, heavy rainfall canceled those plans.

“It’s a big concern,” Stauffer said. “We started it (with Autumn Hills) and now everybody wants to have block parties and close the streets. I can see this escalating.”

While Miller and two friends said the block party was a good way to get to know the neighbors, it wasn’t enough to persuade the board.
Lieutenant Christopher McKim, with the Ephrata Police Department, agreed with Stauffer’s concern about emergency vehicles.

Supervisor Haws suggested the neighborhood group contact Green Dragon and ask if they could hold a block party on the grounds of the farmers’ market, and Supervisor Zerbe agreed, saying there would be more room and more grassy areas for the kids at Green Dragon.

Sawyer suggested that the group contact Green Dragon officials before the next supervisors’ meeting.

Marylouise Sholly is a freelance feature writer for The Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at weezsholly@verizon.net. 

One Comment

  1. rick roland

    July 13, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    Mr Stauffer said he heard were a POISONOUS HERBICIDE was sprayed on a field what was in or being planted in that field.I hope NOTHING. My family loves his corn i may now stop eating his.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *