Tobyhanna Township Finally Adopts an STR Ordinance; Conflict of Interest Alleged in that Supervisor Chair Owns STR

Last Minute Exemption That Applies to Mr. Kerrick’s Cottage is Questioned

State Ethics Panel Says Kerrick Must Recuse

AUG 2 2022, 3:30pm

POCONO SUMMIT (Tobyhanna Township) – Tobyhanna Township finally ended its years-long struggle with regulating vacation home rentals with the unanimous adoption in late June of a short-term rental (STR) ordinance.

The Tobyhanna Township Board of Supervisors held their hearing on the short-term rental ordinance in the high school auditorium. (Boro Photo)

That long process was criticized for including secret committee and board meetings from which the public was barred, accusations of ulterior and personal motives on all sides, and what some called a stubborn refusal of the board to provide open, candid information on the process in order to control the debate.

The board limited public comments to a couple of minutes, refused to follow Robert’s Rules of Order on many occasions, and was several times accused of sunshine and open records violations.

Owners of short-term rentals claimed harassment and threats from residents opposed to STRs; residents standing in opposition to the vacation rentals likewise said they were threatened and harassed by owners.

In response to the perceived intransigence of the township, a group of STR owners, local businesses serving them, and residents supportive of the Poconos hospitality industry, banned together to form “Tobyhanna for All,” an advocacy group promoting what they call “reasonable” regulation. They have raised nearly $30,000 to challenge the new law and hired noted Stroudsburg zoning lawyer Bob Kidwell to represent them.

Stroudsburg attorney Bob Kidwell address the supervisors on behalf of the “Tobyhanna for All” organization. (BORO Photo)

The final meeting was pretty much a reflection of the process of getting there. The tone was set at the top of the meeting when the 45 or so attendees present at the start complained they couldn’t hear the supervisors and asked them to use the microphones. “Well come a little closer,” board chair John Kerrick snapped back.

A few minutes later, when a resident simply asked if the board could explain the basis for the restrictive occupancy in the final draft, Mr. Kerrick brusquely shut him down announcing, “We ask the questions. We don’t answer your questions.”

One big unanswered question was how the exemption for “cabins and cottages” got into the final draft.  It was never in any of the public drafts, members of the township committee said it was never discussed in their meetings, and the provision was never brought up at any public meeting.

Resident Ed Tutrone suggested an answer at the public hearing when he said Mr. Kerrick had a conflict of interest in the matter.

For the first time in the nearly three-years the issue has been discussed in Tobyhanna, it was revealed that Mr. Kerrick has a majority ownership interest in an STR “cottage” in the township.

Mr. Kerrick’s Cottage, called “Cottage 9” on AirBnB, Booking.com, VRBO, Travelocity, and Expedia, is located on Alice Lane, an unpaved road off of route 940, near Wagner’s Run. It is listed as two bedrooms and allows as many as 6 adults for up to $608 a night (including fees and before taxes).

Mr. Kerrick’s Cottage

At the hearing, Mr. Tutrone asked for an explanation on how the clause exempting cottages from the regulations got into the ordinance. The question was never answered.

Shortly before the hearing, the township released the final version of the ordinance in which this clause suddenly appeared: “Camps, cabins and cottages that predate the township Zoning Ordinance are exempt from this Chapter.”

The township zoning ordinance was adopted in 1995, so all “camps, cabins, and cottages” built prior to that would not be subject to the new law. According to county records, Mr. Kerrick’s Cottage was built in 1974.

Before passage of the STR ordinance, short-term rentals were illegal in the township. The town made the decision not to enforce that prohibition until after adoption of an ordinance regulating them.

With the passage of the new ordinance in June exempting “Camps, cabins and cottages that predate the township Zoning Ordinance,” it appears that those older properties may now be precluded from offering short-term rentals. Since the public has not been told who inserted that language, or why, it is unclear if the intention was to preclude those properties from the STR market, or to exempt them only from the various restrictions in the ordinance.

Among the most controversial restrictions is the limit on the number of persons that may occupy the STR. It allows only two persons per bedroom.

Mr. Kerrick’s Cottage has two bedrooms, which would limit occupancy to four persons. However, he accepts as many as six adults (on AirBnB a vacationer can add up to 5 infants and five dogs; the ordinance is silent on pets).

Over the nearly three-years during which the supervisors wrestled with developing the short-term rental ordinance, Mr. Kerrick participated in discussions and conferring with others, and the board, on the issue. The discussions and conferences occurred in public as well as in the private meetings and conferences at which the public was precluded. A week after the final draft was prepared, and barely two weeks before the public hearing, Mr. Kerrick asked the state ethics commission if his STR ownership would be a conflict.

According to the records of the commission, on June 13, 2022, Mr. Kerrick requested an advisory from the commission as to voting on a proposed short-term rental ordinance where he is the majority owner of a short-term rental property. The commission responded on July 13 saying that he would not only need to abstain from voting on short-term rental matters, but that it would be a violation to participate in discussions or conferences on the matter. The commission went on to say that he needed to abstain from the matter and publicly disclose the reason for his abstention.

He did abstain from voting on the final draft of the ordinance at the end of June.

At the hearing itself, many of the commentaries were repetitive of those at prior public meetings on the issue. The vast majority of speakers – residents, local business people, local STR owners, and owners from outside the county – were in favor of regulating STRs, but found the final draft to be overly restrictive and unreasonable. A great many asked when their questions would be answered (to which the supervisors remained silent) and complained about the lack of dialogue.

Tobyhanna resident Joe Crandall spoke in support of the proposed ordinance saying rental owners only cared about making money and not about the township. He urged supervisors to “pass this today.” (Boro Photo)

There were also a significant number of residents who strongly supported the restrictions and thanked the supervisors for their efforts. Some in the opposition said they would have been happy with even more stringent rules or outright bans.

After seeing the final draft, Wendy Manley, a township resident and member of the township STR Committee, said she was upset with the product. “I want to support this,” she told the board. “But there are problems.” She charged that the work of the STR Committee had been shunted aside, that decisions were made with no public discourse, and the final draft was arbitrary

In the two minutes the supervisors took to discuss the ordinance before voting, none tried to answer any of the residents’ questions or address the substantive issues. Brendon Carroll said he thought it was “fair and balanced.” Rachel Schickling said she thought it was unfair to accuse them of not compromising because they changed the 7-night minimum stay to two nights.

The ordinance goes into effect in late September.

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