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Elon town council calls for more limits on Airbnbs in town’s proposed development rules

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Elon’s town council made full use of the figurative red pen last Tuesday as its members continued to refine a proposed land management ordinance that’s intended to modernize the decades-old development rules that the town currently has on the books.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting that evening, the council made a number of changes to a draft of this ordinance that was presented at a joint meeting of the council and the town’s planning board on November 1.

Among the more significant revisions that the council authorized on Tuesday was the proposed prohibition of short-term rentals, like those marketed through Airbnb, in most of the town’s residential zoning districts.

The council also agreed to put additional restrictions on duplexes and other multifamily structures and to further limit the maximum size of accessory buildings within residential zones.

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In addition to these tweaks to the town’s proposed development rules, the council also received its first formal glimpse of a new zoning map that will ultimately accompany the new land management ordinance.

Lori Oakley, the town’s planning director, assured the council that the consultants who drew up the map were careful not to unwittingly alter any of the zoning districts that are currently in place within the community.

“I don’t think the consultant was trying to make any changes from the current zoning,” she said. “The zoning districts for the most part did stay the same across the board, except that their abbreviations changed.”

Oakley emphasized that the new zoning map doesn’t contain any of the new zoning districts that are proposed in the land management ordinance. She added, however, that developers will, in the future, be able to avail themselves of these options, which include a new category for “planned developments” as well as light and heavy industrial zones that aren’t presently available in Elon.

The town’s planning director also alluded to a couple of overlay zones that are depicted on the new map – including one that applies specifically to the University Drive corridor and another has been imposed onto a few high-density parcels near Elon’s border with Burlington. Oakley acknowledged that these overlay zones are, indeed, new innovations, although she added that they’re based on regulations that the town council has previously approved.

As Oakley went over the proposed zoning map with the council she noticed a couple of oddities among its color-coded patchwork that she couldn’t fully account for at the time. She promised, however, to look into these items to ensure that the new map doesn’t spring any unexpected changes on the town’s property owners.

Alongside the new zoning map, Oakley presented the council with an inventory of proposed revisions that the town’s planning staff has made to the land management ordinance based on the conversation at this month’s joint meeting. This list included 55 items that she attributed to feedback from the town’s consultants, members of its municipal staff, the town council, the planning board, and representatives of Elon University, as well as the one resident who has, so far, weighed in on the proposed ordinance.

Oakley went on to review a handful of suggestions that had stemmed from the “hot topics” which were batted about when the council sat down with the planning board.

 

Duplexes

One of these points of contention concerned the potential requirement of special-use permits for duplexes to be developed in Neighborhood Residential districts. Councilman Randy Orwig insisted that he had no theoretical objections to duplexes in these zones, although he had joined the rest of the council earlier that evening in blocking a request for a pair of duplexes in a Neighborhood Residential area along Manning Avenue. Other members of the council were nevertheless keen to require a special-use permit for duplexes in this particular zone, where duplexes are currently permitted by right.

Oakley also suggested another provision, which the council ultimately accepted, that would entirely forbid duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and multi-family structures within a Suburban Residential district, which is characterized by a lower building density than the Neighborhood Residential designation.

 

Accessory dwellings

The town’s planning director proceeded to dredge up some unresolved issues about “accessory dwellings,” or freestanding buildings serving as residences that are located on the grounds of single-family homes.

During the ensuing discussion, the council members agreed to prohibit these structures in Rural Residential districts – the lowest-density zone for residential development in Elon. They also decided to allow them by right in Neighborhood Residential districts and with a special use permit in Suburban Residential zones.

Meanwhile, mayor Emily Sharpe raised some concerns about the ordinance’s proposed maximum of 1,200 square feet for an accessory dwelling.

“I grew up in a 1,200 square foot home,” she confessed, “and that’s a big accessory structure.”

As an alternative, Oakley recommended a maximum size of 1,000 square feet, although she stressed that another provision would prohibit accessory dwellings from exceeding 35 percent of the main structure’s square footage.

 

Short-term rentals

Oakley also touched on the topic of short-term rentals, which had apparently been a major sticking point during the joint meeting. She observed that the town’s planning board has been inclined to allow short-term rentals, albeit with a zoning permit so that the town can keep track of these sites.

“Staff didn’t even take a dive into this one because there was such a passionate response at the meeting,” she added. “There’s also a lot of legal challenges coming in in the state of North Carolina…where local entities [would] have less authority to restrict them.”

Oakley went on to discourage the council from taking the zoning permit approach. She saw no reason, however, why its members couldn’t categorically exclude short-term rentals from particular zoning districts.

On that note, Sharpe suggested that short-term rentals should be prohibited in Suburban Residential and Neighborhood Residential districts, while council member Stephanie Bourland agreed that Airbnb and its kin shouldn’t be allowed to proliferate in these two zones.

“I don’t think this type of tourism is what we are looking for,” she said.

In the end, the council agreed to strike short-term rentals from the list of approved uses in Rural Residential, Neighborhood Residential, and Suburban Residential zones. Its members were nevertheless quick to point out that this move wouldn’t affect existing rentals, which would be grandfathered in under the town’s existing development rules.

In a subsequent interview, Oakley acknowledged that the council’s proposed prohibition on short-term rentals could turn this particular “hot topic” into a regular lightning rod for the town.

“It will be one of the most significant changes,” she added, “because we do get calls from realtors representing clients who want to buy houses specifically for short-term rentals.”

 

Public response: no comment

On Tuesday, however, the council heard nary a peep from the community when it convened a public hearing on the proposed zoning map and the land management ordinance. Its members ultimately instructed Oakley to bring both the map and the ordinance back to them on November 27 with the changes they had requested that evening.

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