BERRIEN SPRINGS — Not everyone was happy with it, but Oronoko Township board members voted unanimously to approve a new rental housing ordinance at their meeting Tuesday night. The action came after a two-hour plus public hearing attended by three dozen local residents.
The new ordinance, application form and fee schedule approved are all part of the township’s new Rental Safety Verification Program, which has been developed over the last two years. Landlords will be required to register their properties with the township by Aug. 30, Township Supervisor Mike Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand reiterated what he and other township officials have been saying for months about the ordinance: The township’s goals are renter safety, firefighter safety, cosmetics and curb appeal, maintaining neighborhood property values, as well as setting rules for short-term rentals. The township has an estimated 1,000 or more rental units.
In long-term rental situations, each building will be charged $100 for registration and inspection plus $20 for each rental dwelling unit. Short-term rentals will pay $300 every year for registration and inspections. The ordinance requires registration every two years for long-term rentals, and every year for short-term rentals.
Concerns were raised Tuesday in a number of areas, including short term-rentals, the long-term rental fees being charged and landlord and tenant responsibilities. A handful of residents even claimed they had not been aware of the township’s plans until recently, even though there were many news articles about it and it was on the township’s website.
That last issue seemed to catch board members off guard. “We’ve spent 22 months developing the ordinance, had a public meeting on April 30 and it looked like we were on the right track,” Hildebrand said. “Now, three comments in to the public hearing, I’m getting the idea that there’s an element of surprise and I don’t know where that’s coming from.”
As for short-term rentals, township resident Tiffany Rydwelski said her family lives on Coveney Road and has had to deal with two neighbors using their homes as short-term rentals over the last five years. She said they’ve had to deal with everything from increased traffic, noise and property damage to people trespassing and disrupting their horses.
She said that while she appreciates the township trying to address the short-term rental issue in the new ordinance, she doesn’t think it goes far enough. “The problem is bigger than the scope of the ordinance,” she said. “How are you going to enforce on them using pictures of my kids on their website or on people who are here one day and leave the next?”
Hildebrand asked for time to enforce the new ordinance and try to address concerns raised by Rydwelski and others. He noted that local governments are just now being allowed to set down regulations on short-term rentals.
“Face it, we live in a beautiful part of the country,” he said. “We live in a salad bowl with all the fruits and vegetables grown here and Lake Michigan nearby; this is a destination place. But the time has come where we need to address these issues where people have crossed the line. We need to get our arms around it.”
On the issue of the registration and inspection fees, landlord Phil Merkel said he is concerned about the amount of the fees, which he said are higher than other nearby municipalities. Merkel expressed similar views at the April 30 informational meeting.
“The fees seem to be on the high side,” he said. “I haven’t gotten a better idea of how you determined the fees, you only say that you’re trying to be fair and you’re not out to make a profit.”
Hildebrand acknowledged that the township doesn’t know how much the actual costs of the program will be. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “The goal is not to make money but it needs to be self sufficient. We will re-evaluate everything after two years.”
Landlord Tom Witzel said he feels the new ordinance is too heavy-handed, and the problems the ordinance seeks to address should have been already addressed through zoning and enforcement. “The expense of enforcing these rules is being put on landlords,” he said. “The ordinance makes landlords foot the bill.”
Fire Chief Bruce Stover, whose firefighters will be doing the inspections, said inspectors will be flexible and work with landlords. If most items are in compliance, he said landlords will be given time to fix specific issues.
Hildebrand agreed, saying, “We’re not going to come in like cowboys. ... We’re not trying to be jerks or heavy handed,” he said. “The community would be upset by that. This didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight. … Our goal is to be reasonable. If we shut down all the rentals, it would hurt the community.”