By Bob Uphues
Riverside trustees on Sept. 6 unanimously voted to stop processing applications for vacation rental licenses in the village's residential districts in the wake of complaints from residents near Riverside's lone licensee and an online petition signed by nearly 300 people.
At their meeting on Sept. 20, trustees will pass an ordinance to make that action official. Meanwhile, the board will also direct the Planning and Zoning Commission to hold a public hearing in order to amend the zoning code, removing language allowing vacation rentals in residential areas as a permitted use.
About 30 people who turned out in support of the petition loudly applauded the vote, which was something of a change of direction for a board that during the past two months was attempting to craft language that would have kept vacation rentals – more commonly known as Airbnb or VRBO rentals -- in residential areas while tightening the rules to make them less intrusive.
"I think the residents made a powerful statement," said Trustee Joseph Ballerine, who served as president pro-tem of the board meeting in the absence of Ben Sells, who was out of town.
Ballerine said the petition organizers provided a map indicating where all of the signers lived, and that it represented a cross section of the community, not just those living near the existing vacation rental in the 100 block of Michaux Road.
"The map proved it wasn't a block issue; it was a quality-of-life issue," Ballerine said. "Their presence [at the meeting] was huge. I'm pretty sure that turned the tide."
While Ballerine had been calling for vacation rentals to be outlawed in residential districts for the past two months, the rest of the trustees had supported trying to tweak rules regarding occupancy limits and more strictly regulating quiet hours and outdoor activities and the use of vacation rentals for events.
In fact, trustees had anticipated discussing and settling on about a dozen new rules for vacation rentals in residential districts at the Sept. 6 meeting. But the discussion never got started.
Instead, Ballerine referred to the online petition and its roughly 300 signatories, quoting from an email that included the petition, sent earlier on Sept. 6 to the board of trustees.
"The property at [the existing vacation rental on Michaux Road] is a commercial operation and as a result the experience of living near the property has changed to that of a commercially zoned area of the residents nearby," the email stated. "We live in a residential neighborhood and want to maintain that experience."
Ballerine also read a prepared statement apologizing to residents for the unintended consequences of the village board's 2017 decision to permit vacation rentals with few restrictions in residential districts.
"It was never my intention for this ordinance to be used in this manner," said Ballerine, who was one of the champions of allowing vacation rentals in Riverside as a tool for economic development. "The issue has been frustrating to all of you, and we will do our best tonight to alleviate this problem within the confines of the law."
Then he turned his sights on one of the owners of the Michaux Road vacation rental, Steven Baer, who for the past two months has been sending "off the record" lengthy emails to an unknown number of recipients – one listed more than 75 recipients – including the local newspaper, implying that complaints about his vacation rental and the board's effort to more strictly control rentals generally might be race-driven, as the Baers had rented their home to people of color.
"I am disgusted by the inflammatory accusations leveled by some at staff and elected officials which I know in my heart to be baseless," Ballerine said in his statement. "Riverside enjoys a cross section of racial, sexual and cultural diversity in both its population and staff, and to claim otherwise is grossly incorrect and unfair."
In June, when the Baers sought to increase the number of nights vacation rentals could operate in Riverside from 60 to 180, residents showed up a village board meeting in force to stop it.
The main theme of the complaints at that time was of the Baers home being rented for large events, such as weddings, corporate training sessions and family reunions. According to the existing law, the Baers were able to advertise their property as a place that could house up to 20 people.
On Sept. 6, three of the roughly 30 petition supporters also spoke against vacation rentals in residential areas, one of them from Michaux Road.
"By bringing a vacation rental into the property, it changes the experience to one of a very transient neighborhood," said Melissa Jurgens, who lives near the Baers. "While they might be lovely people and wonderful events, it changes it for the neighbors that live there. We prefer our quiet and well-known experiences with our neighbors."
Jennifer Partridge, whose Shenstone Road home is not impacted at all by the Michaux Road rental, argued against such businesses just the same.
"I have yet to encounter a single person that would want a vacation rental next door to them or across the street," Partridge said. "This just doesn't make sense in the residential areas."
However, the village board didn't kill the idea of vacation rentals entirely. Trustees are still open to vacation rentals being allowed in Riverside's business districts. The village has a pending application for such a rental for a condominium unit within the downtown business district on Forest Avenue.
The village board likely will revisit occupancy and other rules related to those rentals in the future.
"I think it's got a place in town,' said Ballerine in a separate interview. "You just have to balance it. One thing we did do is prove this can work in Riverside. I think we have to figure out how to make it work."