There is no peace in the Pine Creek Valley as a situation that has developed over the last few years has long-time residents pitted against property owners who are offering short-term rentals, which in many cases are bringing with them loud parties and traffic congestion.
What began as the discovery of a basically unspoiled area in the heart of central Pennsylvania where large water birds 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 from out of the area, who are buying properties along the creek.
This is a prime fishing stream with people from all over the country coming to stretches of this waterway, which begins in Potter County, for catch-and-release trout fishing. No one wants these waters spoiled by sewage coming from over-taxed systems, the result of too many people occupying a structure that was not built to accommodate that number.
Off-site landlords who are not on hand to monitor the rentals are causing concerns with residents who either 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 with short-term rentals “growing exponentially.”
“When I was a kid growing up here many people had cabins and they rented them. It wasn’t a real problem like it is today, because people owned them and you would know who the owner was,”
“It’s becoming an investment today. It’s the absentee landlord. Some manager, that we don’t even know either, is a real problem. Most of the people that live here and rent cabins, they take care of them and manage them and do a great job,” he added.
The first rumblings that there was a growing problem along Pine Creek were brought to the Lycoming County Planning Commission last year, according to Mark Haas, development services supervisor at the county Planning and Community Development Department.
“They asked us to look into an ordinance solution to help them manage this quickly growing land use — and it is a growing land use,” Haas told the planning commission at their last meeting.
“Not only are people renting out their summer homes, rooms in their houses and things, but they’re also buying structures and turning them into just plain short-term rentals. Basically they’re turning them into hotels,” Haas said.
Short-term rentals are defined as someone renting a dwelling or room for under 30 days. Over that time, it is considered a residence. Although vacation rentals have been around for many years, the concept behind homeowners allowing guests to rent a room or their entire home and pay by credit card on the internet is a newer concept.
“With the internet, we’re getting people from New York and Baltimore. They come here for a vacation, they forget about who they’re trespassing on and so forth. Nobody wants to be calling the police all the time,” Durrwachter told the commission members.
“The problem is that people come up and they forget they’re in a neighborhood. Some of these places are in a neighborhood. They come there and they have parties at night, barking dogs and shooting AK-47s,” Durrwachter said.
“They’re on vacation, but the guy next door isn’t on a Tuesday night at 10 o’clock,” said Frank Posella, McHenry Township supervisor.
Posella told the planning commission about two rental properties adjacent to his home.
“Two of them in particular over a weekend had 25 to 30 people each in there. Cars all over the place. I mean these are two bedrooms, one bathroom,” Posella said.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that we’re concerned about, is sewage. A lot of these places are 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years old. That was a hunting cabin that was used five times a year,” he said.
It was also pointed out that many of the older properties may not have septic systems, but rather a privy or outhouse that has been turned into a septic system, further exacerbating the situation.
Haas told of one property that is basically a remodeled mobile home.
“They can only fit so many people. Once they rented it out they came up and put up a big party tent and there were about 50 people on the property,” he told the commission.
“That strains every form of infrastructure that there is. Private wells, parking issues because it takes up parking, they end up parking on the roads and streets and that’s a hazard,” he said.
Although the local residents are concerned about the problems the short-term rentals are bringing, they are not seeking to have them shut down. They are not telling people that they can’t make money renting their properties. They want their concerns addressed and solutions found for the issues created by short-term rentals without being restrictive.
“Just something that you can point to and say hey, you guys are a little bit over the line. It’s OK to have your Vrbo or Airbnb or whatever you want to call a short-term rental, but with all due respect, you know, you’ve got 30 people in here in a place that was built for three,” he said.
Although a meeting of the Pine Creek Council of Government attended by Haas earlier this year was contentious, with owners of the rentals upset that the county would try to tell them what they could do with their properties, this month’s meeting was more sedate with Haas introducing a tentative ordinance amendment for dealing with short-term rentals.
If enacted, the registration-type ordinance, which is still in the exploratory phase, would apply to all the townships in the county that are part of the county’s zoning partnerships and would be administered by the county. All of those entities were sent a copy of the amendment.
In detailing the ordinance amendment to the COG, Haas stated that the use would be permitted by right in all zoning districts and a zoning hearing board would be required.
In order to register their short-term rental property with the county, owners would need to provide information such as a proof of adequacy of sewage treatment.
“OK, is the septic system on the property capable of handling X amount of people,” Haas stated.
Owners would have to provide proof of adequacy of building code compliance, which they should probably already be complying with.
Another issue addressed in the ordinance is a statement of maximum occupancy.
“This is going to keep people from saying two people would rent a site and all of a sudden there’s a bunch of people there with a big party tent, parking here and there and basically being bad actors. We’re trying to prevent them from doing this,” Haas explained.
General requirements for insurance and flood evacuation plans would also be part of the ordinance.
“I think everyone here knows how quickly Pine Creek can rise. It’s the same thing when you check into a hotel and you look on the back of the door there is an exit plan on where to go in case of fire,” he said.
“We’re not asking for anything else different,” he added.
Property maintenance, specifically trash removal, would be addressed in the ordinance.
There would also be an enforcement process for the problem rentals, Haas noted.
“After a formal notification that there’s a problem, once the complaint hits our desk, we present formal notification that their permit could be pulled, revoked, what have you if they don’t fix the problems,” Haas said.
“It’s going to be a simple thing. We’re just asking people to do what normally needs to be done for any type of these situations,” he said.
Some suggestions from the members of the Pine Creek COG that they think should be included in the ordinance were that properties should have a property manager, someone who could be made aware of problems, who lives within 25 miles of the property and that smoke and carbon Monoxide detectors be installed in the rentals.
Commercial versus direct ownership of the rentals has also been discussed, but Posella said that designating them as commercial adds regulations that would be restrictive.
“When you get into commercial, now you’re starting to talk about fire protection, your smoke detector, ADA compliant — there’s a whole host of things that determine commercial,” he said.
“We’ve talked about them as being a motel (or a) hotel, which to some degree they are analogous. But once you cross that line into commercial, it gets to be building codes…there’s all kinds of ramifications going from residential to commercial that would be restrictive,” he added.
“Our biggest thing, when we look at a zoning ordinance or any kind of zoning changes-three things, health, safety and general welfare,” Haas said.
“We’re not doing this to be a pain. We’re doing this to protect these three things,” he added.
Mike Yohe, a Cummings Township supervisor at the COG meeting highlighted the difficulties with regulating the burgeoning short-term rentals.
“Yeah, I mean you’re really trying to thread the needle on this. We all realize that change is in progress and inevitable and we’re trying to keep ahead of it, but not upset the nature and the character of what we have,” said Yohe.
Posella provided further insight into the dilemma.
“But it is going to be one of those issues where you’re going to have one side very happy and the other side is very angry. There’s no two ways about it,” Posella said.