The city of Charleston is at a critical turning point in how it regulates short-term rentals. The proliferation of these rapidly expanding businesses throughout the city threatens the stability, affordability and livability of our neighborhoods. At present, many short-term rentals operate in violation of the city zoning code.

On a personal level, I experience the damaging impact this activity can have on a neighborhood daily, and from a professional planner’s perspective, I am concerned about the overall long-term implications for our city.

In Harleston Village, next to and near my residence, there are four short-term rentals within one block that have been operating for over a year, despite a city ordinance that prohibits them.

These are mini-hotels with a constant turnover of guests, sometimes up to 10-12 people at a time. As one group leaves, the cleaning crew arrives and later that same day or the next day another group arrives. Most of these owners are absentee owners, investors from out of state and owners of multiple short-term rental properties.

All of these are managed by Duvet, which was recently featured in this paper. A recent op-ed by Taylor Gates, one of the Duvet owners, implied that Duvet was a model company.

Flagrantly violating the city’s zoning ordinance is not the characteristic of a responsible company and responsible property owners.

Despite being located in Harleston Village, the short-term rentals are advertised as being located in nearby Cannonborough-Elliotborough, the only neighborhood in the city where short-term rentals can currently operate legally. Even though notified by city officials, they continue to operate unabated.

Short-term rental activity totally changes the character of the neighborhood. Lost is the sense of community from knowing your neighbors, having residents who are concerned about the neighborhood and city and who support each other and local businesses.

Because these businesses can generate much greater income than traditional rentals, they inflate property values and remove much needed housing for permanent residents from the market. Gentrification becomes a much bigger threat than it ever was.

The city established a task force to study the short-term housing issue over a year ago, and it finalized its recommendations last fall and presented them to the Planning Commission. Composed of a diverse group of individuals, the task force thoroughly and thoughtfully studied and debated the issue, held several public meetings and listened to a large number of citizens before finalizing its report.

The recommendations are fair and balanced, allowing short-term rentals under certain limited circumstances and with important conditions to ensure that neighborhoods are protected and to prevent a proliferation of this commercial activity. They include a provision that prevents whole house rentals and requires the owner to reside on the property when it is rented. This is a critical requirement to ensure that short-term rentals are truly an accessory use and responsibly operated.

Another provision places a limit on the number of people allowed to rent at one time.

The Planning Commission has proposed loosening these two recommendations. That would negatively impact residential neighborhoods. Without these safeguards, short-term rentals should not be allowed at all. Also, no new short-term rentals should be permitted until enforcement has eliminated those currently operating illegally.

The Planning Commission will meet again on Jan. 31 to further discuss the proposed ordinance and finalize its recommendations to City Council.

As the Planning Commission and City Council continue the debate about short-term rentals, the alternatives are clear — protect our neighborhoods by adopting the STR Task Force’s and city staff’s recommendations or forever lose what makes our city special.

Do we want a real living, vibrant city with residents who love and care for it or a Disneyland version of Charleston?

A decision is needed soon.

Yvonne Fortenberry served as planning director for the city of Charleston, 1986-2006.