Council meeting

City residents fill the council chambers at Niagara Falls City Hall on Wednesday where a vote was taken on new short-term rental regulations.

Kathy DuBois’ voice rose in a combination of anger and indignation.

As the five members of the Falls City Council sat stone-faced in front of her, DuBois a short-term rental operator in the city, said nothing short of systemic racism was behind a proposed new local law, and related amendments to the city’s zoning code, that changes the way short-term, vacation and transient rental properties (STRs) are regulated here.

“Because some people who are white don’t believe other people belong in their neighborhood, that is at the bottom of this issue,” DuBois said. “The playing field is not level. I’m afraid the whole root of this zone is race.”

DuBois, like other short-term rental operators in the Falls, have taken particular aim at a section of the new STR law that limits such rentals to a designated zone in the city. Under the existing local law and zoning code regulations, short-term rentals can be operated anywhere in the city.

The new STR law garnered the recommendation of both the Niagara County and Niagara Falls Planning Boards, after each panel had previously rejected changes to the current law.  

The regulation of STRs has been a source of bitter controversy in the city for almost two years. It even spawned unsuccessful runs for the city council by two prominent STR operators.

The local law before the council on Wednesday night was sponsored by Council Chair John Spanbauer and Council Member Kenny Tompkins after a group of LaSalle-based neighbors took aim at DuBois’ Creekside Drive Air BnB.

The neighbors complained that having tourists in their upscale community was affecting their quality of life.

DuBois said she has shut down her STR “because I can’t ensure the safety of my guests.” She said residents in the neighborhood would harass her guests and over the summer, she said two windows in the kitchen of her home were “shot out.”

Cherish Beals, the president of the association that represents local STR operators, and a member of the city’s Tourism Advisory Board, said the STR zone in the new law was an example of racism on the part of supporters.

“A vote to pass (the new STR law) will further the institutional and systemic racism in the city of Niagara Falls (because) it will increase the barriers of entry, making it even harder for non-white residents to reap the benefits of becoming an STR owner/operator and it will support unhealthy gentrification within the proposed zone where residents, the majority of which are non-white, will be displaced as a result of this zoning,” Beals said in prepared remarks to the council.

Unsuccessful council candidate Colin Ligammari also assailed the council for pushing forward the new law.

“I’m here because the city has its priorities backwards, and voting for this will have a trickle down affect on everyone,” Ligammari said. “When you create an exclusive zone for investors, you force gentrification. You hike up the cost of housing. You hike up the cost of rent. You displace people that can no longer afford to live there. You create a void in the wintertime, which invites crime and vandalism. Revisiting this zone a year from now will not help the people you displace tomorrow.”

Ligammari also said she believed to she was speaking to deaf ears.

“I don’t expect that you’ll start listening to us today. But it is my hope that you are willing to consider the harm these broad strokes will inflict,” she said. “Right now, you can vote no to segregating an area of this city where money talks and opportunities for residents walks.”

Despite the public comments, neither Spanbauer nor Tompkins, nor newly elected Council Members Traci Bax nor David Zajac were swayed in their support of the new law. 

“Municipalities across the country are struggling with how to handle the STR industry,” Spanbauer said. “We will never know if this ordinance will be successful if we don’t approve it.”

Tompkins, who helped craft the current STR law, said it doesn’t work.

“We were told (the STR industry) would self regulate, It didn’t.” Tompkins said. “We’re gonna take a blighted area (the proposed STR zone) and turn it around. This is a good thing.”

That brought a rebuke from former City Council Member William Kennedy, whose no vote doomed the earlier revision of the STR law.

“Pretty sure everyone knows where I stand on this,” Kennedy said. “You’re stopping free enterprise.”

And newly elected Council Member Donta Myles also railed against the ordinance, noting, “This is something I spoke on from the other side (of the council dais).”

“(It’s) keeping people in other parts of the city from participating in the STR enterprise,” he said. 

Myles asked that the vote on the new ordinance be tabled out of concern that lower income people who currently live and rent in the new STR zone will be displaced by speculators who will force them out. 

“Once these people are displaced, we can’t change this,” Myles pleaded with his fellow council members. “Once they’re displaced, they’re gone.”

The effort to table failed when no other council member would even second Myles motion and allow a vote.

The council then adopted the new law on a vote of 4 to 1, with Myles in the negative.

In September, council members voted 4-1, with Kennedy opposed, to impose their third moratorium in less than two years on new permits for STRs and similar rental properties. The moratorium extended a ban on new STR permits, that was originally approved on June 1 and had been set to expire on Sept. 16.

The current moratorium will now expire on March 22.

In January 2020, the council imposed a moratorium on the issuance of new STR permits to allow for a review and update of the current short-term, vacation and transient rental ordinance. Members of the council and Mayor Robert Restaino said at that time that the review was necessary to address an explosion in the number of applications filed since 2018 by property owners seeking to operate short-term tourist rentals.

But a new STR ordinance, proposed by the mayor, failed to be enacted in September 2020, after both the county and city planning boards declined to recommend it. The Falls City Council was unable to muster the votes required, at that time, to override the planning boards’ objections.

The June moratorium was touted as necessary to make another attempt to update the STR ordinance. In July, Tompkins and Spanbauer unveiled their version of a new STR law, which largely rewrote the current ordinance.

In the failed 2020 proposal, Restaino had sought to increase the regulations on short-term, tourist and transient rental properties. The mayor’s proposal would have imposed limits on where short-term rentals could operate, required new permits for current STRs, added yearly fees and inspections and required operators to collect the same taxes that currently apply to hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns.

The Tompkins-Spanbauer proposal incorporated many of the mayor’s proposals, including the imposition of yearly fees and inspections, with the fees to be used to hire a specialized STR compliance service provider or vendor to manage the new regulations.

Operators would also be required to collect the same taxes that currently apply to hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns and limits where STRs can be located.

The new ordinance will allow for a yearly review of the STR boundaries by the City Council and grandfathers current operators whose STRs are located outside the proposed boundaries. The boundaries are also close to double in size to those that were previously proposed.

The proposed STR zone would be bounded by 19th Street, Buffalo Avenue, the state park, Findlay Drive and Ontario Avenue.

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