Small Michigan Town Epitomizes Vacation Home Conundrum


Imagine you live in a small tourist town with a full-time population of about 2,000. Every summer, the local population swells to ten times that number. It is all due to hundreds of vacation homes that occupy some of the most lucrative land in the area. Would you be in favor of a cap on vacation homes in general, or even one on short-term rentals?

This very scenario is currently playing out in the small Michigan town of New Buffalo. The lakeside community has allegedly lost a third of its population since 1980. Vacation home opponents blame the town’s large number of rental properties as the primary culprit. But it would be hard to believe that so many residents left town just because they don’t like tourists.

At any rate, City Council is entertaining two separate proposals that could put the kibosh on new vacation rentals in New Buffalo. One proposal would not allow any more vacation homes within city limits. That means no more new builds and no more permits issued to existing homeowners already on the waiting list. The other proposal would cap short-term rentals in residential areas only.

Disruptive Short-Term Residence

Local residents and the City Council agree that an influx of 20,000 visitors every year does cause some disruptions. Residents complain of loud parties, traffic congestion, and all the other downsides that come with visitors who do not call New Buffalo home. And no, New Buffalo isn’t alone. Every town with a heavy presence of vacation rentals experiences the same thing.

Could the disruptions caused by heavy tourism have driven some local residents away? Absolutely. But there is more to it than that. New Buffalo doesn’t seem to have anything to draw new residents to it. Therein lies the conundrum faced by City Council.

By contrast, Central Florida is a hotbed for vacation rentals. The area obviously has the tourism to support thousands upon thousands of homes. But people are also moving to Central Florida in large numbers. Why? Because they are attracted by job opportunities, comparatively low taxes, fewer onerous regulations, etc. Even if tourism is driving some longtime Floridians away, the state is still attracting even more new residents relocating from other areas.

No Perfect Solution

Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution destined to make everyone in New Buffalo happy. No perfect solution exists anywhere. For example, consider Park City, Utah. Park City is home to a wealth of luxury properties owned by vacationers who love to ski.

Sparano + Mooney is a local architectural firm that specializes in mountain modern architecture. They say local architects and builders are putting up luxury vacation homes at a steady pace. There are those in town who are not happy with all the building. There are others who want to see more of it.

Whenever you are talking vacation rentals, you’re talking potential problems. Vacationers do not necessarily treat rental properties as they would their own homes. And because they are only staying for a week or so, they also don’t go out of their way to be respectful of their neighbors. It’s a given.

On the other hand, vacation properties underwrite the tourism trade. They generate local revenue that supports local business. They even increase the local tax base. All these things are economically good even though there may be quality-of-life trade-offs.

Local New Buffalo residents and their City Council will ultimately have to determine how to address the current vacation rental issues. There is no perfect answer. Here’s hoping they can come up with a compromise solution that ticks as many boxes as possible.

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