A group of homeowners working to protect the people whose livelihoods depend on travel and tourism, the personal rights already vested in individual property owners, and inclusivity in the Town of Highlands have taken legal steps to protect their neighbors and their rights. Asheville, North Carolina, law firm Allen Stahl + Kilbourne has filed a legal complaint on behalf of Save Highlands against the Town for its decision on August 24, 2021, to ban all vacation rentals in R1, effective January 3, 2022.
“We are happy to give a voice to so many local workers, homeowners, and businesses who are adversely affected by this impetuous decision,” said Kristy Jones Favalli, a member of the Save Highlands group. “It’s unfortunate that we’re in this position and that no conciliatory efforts have been made on behalf of the Town. Simply put, this is a matter of due process – we truly believe the law is on our side and that justice will prevail.”
The Town of Highlands has allowed vacation rentals for decades and has permitted many property owners to make substantial investments based on that policy. In order to protect property rights and the economic welfare of the community, Save Highlands is seeking declaratory relief from the Court to prevent the Town of Highlands from discriminating against property owners’ ability to use their property as they see fit, while providing favorable treatment to other property owners. They do not seek monetary damages from the Town of Highlands.
The members of Save Highlands recently sent the following letter to Town residents regarding the issue:
Fellow Lovers of Highlands,
As you are all well aware, Highlands is an inclusive family of year-round residents, seasonal homeowners, visitors, restaurateurs, artists, landscapers, retailers, housekeepers, entrepreneurs, builders, realtors, plumbers, electricians, and many others. All these groups are inter-woven into the fabric that makes this town so special, and while some may not realize it, all of these groups benefit from vacation rentals.
For four decades the Town of Highlands communicated to countless property owners and visitors that there were no restrictions on vacation rentals. The Town has happily accepted rental tax revenue and welcomed renters for decades. That changed this summer when a small but vocal HOA voted to bring legal action against the Town of Highlands. On August 19th, the Town meeting opened with the statement “this is the beginning of a long discussion on vacation rentals,” and less than a week later the Board voted to ban them. The people and the businesses of Highlands were blindsided.
In response, Save Highlands was created. Sadly, we are being positioned as faceless investors. The truth is that we have been part of the community for decades and many of us are full-time residents. One member has had property and family rooted in the town since the 1920s, another since the 1880s. We are not a group of faceless investors. We are your neighbors and, just like you, we want what’s best for this Town.
On October 13, the Save Highlands group of homeowners took the first legal step to retain personal property rights in the Town of Highlands. To be clear, this is not an action we wanted to take. The Town Commission simply has no legal authority to ban all vacation rentals in R1. Unfortunately, neither Mayor Taylor nor anyone from the Town of Highlands have come to the table with negotiations or made any attempt to find common ground. In effect, all remaining options for cordially protecting the rights of property owners and saving Highlands have been exhausted. We firmly believe the law is on our side regarding this issue.
Banning rentals will not only have a crippling financial effect on Highlands, but also fracture its people unnecessarily. In fact, it’s already happening. This action has created an artificial divide between neighbors when together we could address the issue thoughtfully, taking the entire community’s input into consideration.
A vacation rental ban will have a substantial negative effect on tax and business revenue and lead to a devastating loss of income for countless Highlands residents. Banning rentals could mean an annual loss of 19.3 million dollars in direct income on Main Street and a 115-million-dollar total economic loss for the Town. These financial implications are far reaching and affect us all.
While the Town is currently booming - fueled by the travel dynamics of the pandemic and a recovering economy - the financial effects of a vacation rental ban will be felt this winter and exponentially when the economic climate isn’t so strong. We want balance. Vacation rentals are a complicated subject for any town, which is why they were specifically addressed in the Draft Community Plan.
And while loud voices have stated that vacation rentals are “simply against the law,” that is simply false. The Town of Highlands Use Regulations do not even mention vacation rentals. Even the State of North Carolina defines vacation rentals as “residential use.” But more than that, we feel that who we invite into our homes should be in our hands as the property owners – not the decision of the government.
We love this town and its people. And we believe if we come together as a community, we can create an inclusive, well-planned future to save Highlands for generations to come.
The Save Highlands Committee
To read the legal filing in its entirety, visit www.savehighlands.net
Jill Lieberman, Adapt Public Relations