Leelanau News and Events

New Zoning District Proposal Could Restart Elmwood Township's Short-Term Rental Debate

By Craig Manning | Dec. 11, 2023

A debate that raged for years in Elmwood Township could get reignited this week, thanks to a presentation on the docket at tonight’s township board of trustees meeting.

For two and a half years, from spring 2019 to fall 2021, officials on Elmwood Township’s board of trustees and planning commission went back and forth on how to regulate short-term rentals (STRs). In September 2021, the long debate came to an end when the board of trustees voted both to allow up to 93 STR licenses in the township and to permit STR licenses in all zoning districts. Due to strong public opposition from segments of the township, though – particularly from homeowners in Greilickville – the board also passed a motion “directing the planning commission to, as soon as possible, develop an overlay district or zoning ordinance amendment to not allow STRs in part or all of the residential areas or subdivisions in Greilickville.”

More than two years later, no such overlay district or zoning ordinance amendment has materialized. Jack Kelly – a township resident, former Elmwood Township supervisor, and vocal member of the “Save Our Neighborhoods in Elmwood” group (SONIE, which mobilized against STRs back in 2019) – says the township’s pledge to honor the wishes of Greilickville “has simply fallen by the wayside” since that fateful meeting in September 2021.

Now Kelly wants to “help the township board do what they said they were going to do” by bringing the topic of a zoning ordinance amendment back to the table. At the township board meeting scheduled for this evening (Monday, December 11) Kelly will outline a plan for what he and other likeminded Greilickville homeowners have dubbed the “Cherry Bend Neighborhood District.” If endorsed and adopted by the township board and the planning commission, the zoning plan would ban new STRs in affected neighborhoods (pictured).

The STR debate in Elmwood Township dates back to March 2019, when the township’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA) declared that all STRs in the township were an illegal use – with the exception of owner-occupied bed-and-breakfast establishments. Despite the ZBA ruling, dozens of non-owner-occupied STRs were operating in the township at the time, and many of those had been rentals for decades. That inconsistency – between what was technically allowed based on zoning and what was actually happening in the township – prompted Elmwood’s planning commission to start looking at the rules and considering zoning that would allow STRs but limit their prevalence.

Throughout the 2019-2021 talks, Kelly and the rest of SONIE repeatedly contended that STRs were commercial businesses and should not be allowed in residential neighborhoods. Some planning commissioners, meanwhile, argued that many of the rentals were long-time family cottages in waterfront areas and were only being rented out a few weeks per season to help families afford them; the commission wanted to protect those uses without allowing a deluge of STRs township-wide.

The township board ultimately voted at a September 30, 2021 meeting to approve two measures that opened the door for legal, regulated STRs. First, the board voted 5-2 to amend the township’s zoning ordinance to legalize STRs in all zoning districts, including residential zones. Second, the board voted 6-1 to adopt a new licensing ordinance that capped the number of STR licenses at 93 – a number chosen because, at the time, it constituted 4 percent of the dwelling units in Elmwood Township.

According to Elmwood Township’s STR webpage, all 93 licenses have been granted as of February 13, 2023. As of September, there are also nine additional STR applications on a waitlist. Licenses must be renewed each year and are not transferrable when a property is bought or sold. Current license holders must submit a renewal application and pay a fee during a renewal period in October to keep their STR licenses from lapsing on December 31. Failure to comply with these rules or other township standards –including capacity limits, parking requirements, and quiet hours – can lead a violating license holder to lose their STR permit, which would then be offered to the next applicant on the waitlist.

In 2021, SONIE gathered signatures of 265 Elmwood Township residents for a petition that opposed non-owner-occupied STRs in the township. Kelly shared at the September 2021 meeting that 80 percent of those signees “were from neighborhoods in Greilickville” – a data point that in turn prompted the motion to consider banning STRs in Greilickville specifically. Notably, Township Supervisor Jeff Shaw said at the time that any STR licenses granted in those neighborhoods prior to the establishment of an overlay district or zoning district would “essentially be grandfathered in” and allowed to continue operating so long as they followed other township rules and renewal timelines.

While Kelly estimates there are fewer than 10 licensed STRs actually operating in the neighborhoods included in his proposed Cherry Bend Neighborhood District, he’s still adamant that STRs are commercial uses that damage neighborhoods and take away housing from people who need it, and that such uses should be limited wherever possible. Moreover, Kelly is determined to see the Elmwood Township board follow through on what it promised two years ago.

“I think that [creating this neighborhood district] is a logical extension of the board's intention from September 30, 2021,” Kelly concludes. “It fulfills their motion, it provides protection to township residents, and all existing STR owners are unaffected because they can continue to operate in this proposed zoning district without any problems, so long as they maintain a valid license. This is a win-win opportunity for the township, and I’m hopeful the township board is going to see it that way, also – and ultimately, put this matter in front of the planning commission for a future zoning change.”

Note: Sarah Clarren, Elmwood Township’s planning and zoning administrator, was out of the office last week and could not provide up-to-date information on STR numbers and locations in time for this story.

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