(New Buffalo, MI) - New Buffalo Mayor John Humphrey and City Councilman Brian Flanagan are trying to stop an effort by short-term rental supporters to remove them from office.
Approval of language in recall petitions by the Berrien County Election Commission on May 3 is being appealed by Humphrey and Flanagan in Berrien County Circuit Court. The reason cited in one of the petitions for recalling Humphrey and Flanagan is their votes to prohibit new short-term rentals in R-1, R-2, and R-3 zoning districts in the city.
Humphrey said the language on the surface is accurate but doesn’t reflect the truth or reasons behind the decision. The New Buffalo mayor believes it lacks context and misleads the public.
Humphrey maintains that he tried to explain the history behind their decisions to members of the election commission but was not allowed before the language in the recall petitions was approved.
He said permits to operate short-term rentals were issued under the previous administration despite no language existing in local zoning laws allowing homes to be used for such purposes. Humphrey said the previous city council placed a moratorium on short-term rental permits in response to increasing complaints from full-time residents about parties, loud noise, and other disruptions from the dwellings.
Another reason cited for the moratorium was to buy time for deciding whether to change local zoning laws to allow short-term rentals and, if so, to adopt restrictions to govern their use since there was nothing in the books about homes used for vacations or weekend getaways.
Ultimately, the zoning laws were amended to allow homes used as short-term rentals in the past to continue welcoming guests as long as a permit was obtained and use of the property abided by newly adopted restrictions. He said only additional short-term rentals in residential districts were prohibited.
“There was never a legal right in our zoning ordinance to short-term rent. This was a special use unlawfully granted to people from the previous administration,” Humphrey said.
He also said approval of the amended zoning laws is what lifted the moratorium. Lifting the moratorium without amending the zoning laws would have meant the city is in violation again for allowing a use not explicitly covered in the books.
“They were never legal, to begin with,” Humphrey said.
Even though short-term rentals were not mentioned in the previous codebooks, Humphrey said they were illegal because local zoning prohibits commercial activity in single-family residential neighborhoods.
“A family unit is not large groups of people. Period,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey said the people behind the recall attempt mostly live outside the city with interests driven strictly by money. Opponents of the ban argue it infringes on their rights as property owners. However, Humphrey disagrees.
“They don’t want our zoning enforced. When you buy a piece of property, you’re entering into a contract with that municipality to abide by its zoning rules and regulations. Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean it’s legal or fair,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey and Flanagan were elected to their first terms in November of 2020 after campaigning against the growing number of short-term rentals.
Taking a seat on the council at the same time was Roger Lijewski, who also voted in favor of the ban. There’s no attempt to recall Lijewski, though.
Humphrey said the recall supporters wouldn’t be able to drum up enough support for the recall attempt if they also tried to have Lijewski removed. Lijewski was the leading vote-getter in 2020. Humphrey and Flanagan were the second and third top vote-getters for the three open seats but still defeated their opponents by a nearly two-to-one margin.
“Putting Roger in the same boat with us makes their chances of getting signatures less likely,” Humphrey said.
Recall supporters must obtain 219 signatures on their petitions for a recall election to be held in November if the appeal by Humphrey and Flanagan fails. Humphrey also said the recall attempt is a way to overturn a decision by a democratically elected council that was done legally and reflects the desire of most of their constituency.
“You must have fairness and equity in the election process, or you can’t have democratic elections, and that’s what they’re trying to stop,” Humphrey said.