There is no peace in Pine Creek Valley, as a situation that has developed over the past few years has pitted longtime residents against property owners who offer short-term rentals, often bringing loud parties and traffic jams with them.
What began as the discovery of a largely unspoiled area in the heart of central Pennsylvania, where large waterfowl can be seen perched on rocks in the waters of Pine Creek, has turned into a money-making opportunity for investors, many from the area, who buy properties along the river.
This is a prime fishing stream with people from all over the country coming to stretches of this waterway that begin in Potter County for catch-and-release trout fishing. No one wants these waters to be ruined by sewage coming from overtaxed systems, the result of too many people occupying a structure not built to accommodate that number.
Off-site landlords who are not ready to monitor the leases are causing concern among residents who either live in the area year-round or have had cabins there for generations.
Dr. George Durrwachter was born and raised in Pine Creek Valley and still has a cabin there. He sees the problem with short-term rentals “growing exponentially.”
“When I was a kid growing up here, a lot of 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 is becoming an investment today. It is the absent landlord. Some leader we don’t even know either is a real problem. Most of the people who 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, supervisor of development services for the county’s planning and community development department.
“They asked us to explore a bylaw solution to help them deal with this rapidly 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 vacation homes, rooms in their houses and things, but they’re also buying structures and turning them into regular short-term rentals. Basically, they’re turning them into hotels,” Haas said.
Short-term rental is defined as a person renting a home or room for less than 30 days. During that time it is considered a residence. Although vacation rentals have been around for many years, the concept of homeowners allowing guests to rent a room or their entire home and pay by credit card online is a newer concept.
“With the Internet, we get people from New York and Baltimore. They come here for a vacation, they forget who they’re violating and so on. Nobody wants to call the police all the time,” Durrwachter told commission members.
“The problem is people come up and they forget they’re in a neighborhood. Some of these places are in a neighborhood. They get there and they have parties at night, barking dogs and shooting AK-47s. Durrwachter said.
“They’re on vacation, but the neighbor 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, especially during a weekend, had 25 to 30 people in there each. Cars everywhere. I mean, it’s two bedrooms, one bathroom.” Posella said.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things we’re concerned about is sewage. A lot of these places are 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years old. It was a hunting lodge that was used for 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 shed or outbuilding that has been converted to a septic system, further exacerbating the situation.
Haas talked about a property that is basically a converted mobile home.
“They can only fit so many people. Once they rented it out, they came up and put up a big marquee and there were about 50 people on the property. he told the commission.
“It puts a strain on any kind of infrastructure that exists. Private wells, parking issues because it takes up parking, they end up parking on roads and streets and it’s a hazard,” he said.
Although local residents are concerned about the problems short-term rentals bring, they are not seeking to shut them down. They don’t tell people they can’t make money renting out their properties. They want their concerns addressed and solutions found to the problems created by short-term rentals without being restrictive.
“Just something you can point to and say hey, you guys are a little 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 built for three,” he said.
Although a Pine Creek Council of Government meeting attended by Haas earlier this year was contentious, with leaseholders upset that the county would try to tell them what they could do with their properties, this month’s meeting was calmer , when Haas introduced a preliminary ordinance amendment for handling short-term rentals.
If passed, the registration form ordinance, which is still in the exploratory phase, would apply to all cities in the county that are part of the county’s zoning partnerships and would be administered by the county. All these units were sent a copy of the change.
In detailing the ordinance amendment to COG, Haas stated that the use would be permitted by right in all zoning districts and that a zoning hearing board would be required.
In order to register their short-term rental property with the county, owners will need to provide information such as proof of adequate wastewater treatment.
“OK, is the septic system on the property capable of handling X number of people,” Haas stated.
Owners would have to provide evidence that building regulations are adequate, which they probably should already be complying with.
Another issue addressed in the executive order is an indication of maximum occupancy.
“This will stop people from saying two people wanted to rent a space and all of a sudden there’s a bunch of people there with a big marquee parking here and there and basically being bad actors. We’re trying to prevent them from to do this,” Haas explained.
General insurance requirements and flood evacuation plans will also be part of the order.
“I think everyone here knows how quickly Pine Creek can rise. It’s the same when you check into a hotel and you look on the back of the door, there’s an exit plan for where you must go in case of fire,” he said.
“We ask for nothing else,” he added.
Property maintenance, specifically trash removal, will be addressed in the ordinance.
There would also be an enforcement process for the problem rental, Haas noted.
“After a formal notice that there’s a problem, when the complaint hits our desk, we present formal notice that their permit can 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 members of the Pine Creek COG that they believe should be included in the ordinance were that properties be required to have a property manager, a problem alert person who lives within 25 miles of the property, and that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors installed in the tenancies.
Commercial versus outright ownership of the leases has also been discussed, but Posella said designating them as commercial adds rules that would be restrictive.
“When you get into commercial, now you start talking 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 they are somewhat analogous to. But once you cross that line into commercial, it becomes building codes…there are all sorts of ramifications from residential to commercial , which would be restrictive.” he added.
“Our biggest thing when we look at a zoning or any kind of zoning change — 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 in regulating the burgeoning short-term rental industry.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re really trying to thread the needle on this. We all realize that change is ongoing and inevitable, and we try to stay ahead of it, but not disrupt the nature and character of what we have.” Yohe said.
Posella provided further insight into the dilemma.
“But it’s going to be one of those issues where you want one side very happy and the other side very angry. There’s no two ways about it,” Posella said.