There is no peace in the Pine Creek Valley as the situation that has developed over the past few years has left long-time residents facing landlords offering short-term rentals, which in many cases brings with them noisy parties and traffic jams.
What started with the discovery of a essentially unspoiled area in the heart of central Pennsylvania – where large waterfowl can be seen perched on rocks in the waters of Pine Creek – has turned into a money-making opportunity for investors, many of whom are outsiders from the area, who are buying properties along the creek.
This is the main fishing trail with people from all over the country coming to stretches of this waterway, which begins in Potter County, to catch and release trout. No one wants this water to be spoiled by sewage coming from excessive tax systems, as a result of so many people occupying a building that was not built to accommodate that many.
Off-site landlords who aren’t willing to monitor rents are causing concerns with residents who live in the area year-round or who have had cabins there for generations.
Dr. George Durrwachter was born and raised in the Pine Creek Valley and still maintains a cabin there. He sees the problem of short-term rentals “It grows exponentially.”
“When I was a kid growing up here a lot of people had cabins and rented them. It wasn’t a real problem as it is today, because people own it and you will know its owner,” Durrwachter said.
“It’s becoming an investment today. He’s the absentee owner. Some of the managers, whom we don’t even know, are a real problem. Most of the people who live here and rent the cabins, look after and run them and do a great job,” he added.
The first grumbling of a growing problem along Pine Creek was brought to the Lycoming County Planning Commission last year, according to Mark Haas, development services supervisor for the county’s Department of Planning and Community Development.
“They asked us to consider a legal solution to help them manage rapidly increasing land use – an increasing use of land,” Haas told the planning committee at their last meeting.
“People not only rent out their summer houses and rooms in their houses and things, but they also buy buildings and turn them into simple short-term rentals. They basically turn them into hotels,” Hass said.
Short-term rentals are defined as a person who rents a dwelling or room for less than 30 days. During that time, it is considered a residence. Although vacation rentals have been around for many years, the concept behind letting homeowners allow guests to rent a room or their entire house and pay with credit card online is new.
“Through the internet, we get people from New York and Baltimore. They come here for vacation, they forget about trespassers and so on. Nobody wants to call the police all the time.” Durrwachter told members of the committee.
The problem is that people come and forget that they are in a neighborhood. Some of these places are in the neighborhood. They come in there and party at night, bark dogs and shoot AK-47s,” Durrwachter said.
“They’re on vacation, but the guy next door isn’t on a Tuesday night at 10 a.m.” said Frank Busella, McHenry Township Supervisor.
Busella told the planning committee about two rental properties next to his home.
“Two of them in particular over the weekend each had 25-30 people there. Cars everywhere. I mean these are two bedrooms and one bathroom” Bussella said.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things we worry about, the sewage. A lot of these places are 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years old. That was a fishing cabin that was used five times a year,” He said.
It was also pointed out that many older properties may not have sewage systems, but may even have a private or outdoor home that has been converted into a sewage system, aggravating the situation.
He told Haas about one property that is essentially a remodeled mobile home.
“They could only accommodate so many people. Once they rented it, they went up and set up a big party tent and there were about 50 people in the property,” He told the committee.
“This exhausts every form of existing infrastructure. Private wells, parking problems because they require parking, they end up parked on roads and streets and this is dangerous,” He said.
Although the locals are concerned about the problems that short-term rentals bring, they do not seek to close them. They don’t tell people that they can’t make money renting out their property. They want to address their concerns and find solutions to problems that arise from short-term rentals without being restricted.
“Just something you can point at and say hey guys over the line a little bit. It’s okay to have a Vrbo or Airbnb or whatever you want for a short-term rental, but with all due respect, you know, you have 30 people here in a place that’s built for three People “ He said.
Although the Pine Creek cabinet meeting that Haas attended earlier this year was controversial, with rental owners annoyed that the county would try to tell them what they could do with their properties, this month’s meeting was more subdued as Haas introduced a temporary law amendment. To deal with short term rentals.
If enacted, the Registration Type Ordinance, which is still in the exploratory stage, will apply to all towns in the county that are part of the county’s zoning partnerships and that will be administered by the county. A copy of the amendment has been sent to all of these entities.
Detailing the COG’s law amendment, Haas stated that use would be permitted in all zoning areas and a zoning session board would be required.
In order to register their short-term rental property with the county, landlords will need to provide information such as proof of sewage treatment adequacy.
“Well, is the sewage system on the property capable of handling X number of people?” Hass stated.
Owners will have to provide evidence of adequacy of building code compliance, which they probably should already comply with.
Another issue addressed in the decree is the statement of maximum occupancy.
“This is going to stop people saying that two people are going to rent a location and suddenly there’s a bunch of people out there with a big party tent, and they stop here and there are basically bad actors. We’re trying to stop them from doing that,” Hass explained.
General requirements for insurance and flood evacuation plans will also be part of the decree.
“I think everyone here knows how fast Pine Creek can go up. It’s the same thing as when you check into a hotel and you look at the back of the door, there’s an exit plan on where to go in case of a fire” He said.
“We’re not asking for anything else different,” he added.
The decree will deal with property maintenance, specifically garbage removal.
There will also be an implementation process for the rent problem, Haas noted.
“Following a formal notification that there is a problem, once the complaint reaches our office, we provide formal notification that their permit can be withdrawn or revoked, and what do you have if the issues are not fixed,” Hass said.
“It would be a simple thing. We are just asking people to do what they would normally do for any of these kinds of situations.” He said.
Some of the suggestions from members of Pine Creek COG that they believed should be included in the ordinance were that the property should have a property manager, someone who could be informed of the problems, living within 25 miles of the property and that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors be installed in rentals.
Commercial ownership versus direct ownership of rentals has also been discussed, but Busella said classifying it as commercial adds regulations that would be restrictive.
“When you start the business, you now start talking about fire protection, your smoke detector, ADA compliant — there’s a whole bunch of things that define commercials,” He said.
“We’ve talked about them as a hostel (or a hotel), and they’re more or less the same. But once you cross that line into a commercial, it’s going to be building codes…There are all kinds of ramifications going from residential to commercial that might be restrictive, “ he added.
“The most important thing we have, when we look at zoning law or any kind of zoning changes — three things, health, safety and general welfare,” Hass said.
“We are not doing this to be painful. We are doing this to protect these three things,” he added.
Mike Yohey, Cummings Township Supervisor at the COG meeting highlighted the difficulties of regulating booming short-term rentals.
“Yeah, I mean you’re really trying to hook the needle with this. We all understand that change is in progress and it’s inevitable and we try to keep up with it, but don’t disturb the nature and character of what we have,” Yohei said. Bussella provided further insight into this dilemma.
“But it will be one of those issues where you will have one side very happy and the other side very angry. There are no two ways about it,” Bussella said.