During public debate over regulating short-term rentals, Castle Heights homeowner Melvin Lipsitz even offered the “views” of Darwin the Gorilla.

Staff photo — Bill Whitaker

History will note that, for a time anyway, local home renovation experts Chip and Joanna Gaines gave Waco something it has long sought: status as a destination point. Through the charisma, ability and resourcefulness showcased on their popular, Emmy-nominated HGTV show “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses have drawn to Waco waves of tourists eager to track down the homes they’ve overhauled and to shop at the mecca that is Magnolia Market at the Silos. The couple is even credited with revitalizing home sales in the Waco area. The home-marketing site Realtor.com reports all 10 of the top home-search locations in the nation last year were in Texas — with the 76712 ZIP code in Woodway topping the list. And the 76710, 76711 and 76707 ZIP codes in Waco came in at two, three and four.

The problem, it seems, comes when folks captivated by the show or other local attractions want to stay in Waco more than a few hours but aren’t ready to put down roots.

Some close-knit neighborhoods in our town are understandably protective of their corners of civilization — and these also happen to be just the sort of inviting neighborhoods where someone might think of running a bed-and-breakfast operation or offering a short-term rental. And with more and more visitors correctly thinking Waco offers more than just Magnolia Market at the Silos, more and more homeowners are exploring scenarios where they can rent out accommodations for a night or a weekend.

No wonder the Waco City Council — by now frazzled from sorting out dozens of cases of who can rent and who can’t in certain neighborhoods — eagerly contemplates hard and fast rules streamlining the process. As Mayor Kyle Deaver noted after a painful meeting in May that rejected permits for three existing short-term residential rentals, “every city in the country is having to deal with this at this point and I think Waco has a greater than normal share of this for a city our size because of the tourist phenomenon we have going on.”

Up for vote tonight

The Plan Commission has already approved without dissent a proposed ordinance defining five types of short-term rental operations and where in the city they can operate. The ordinance goes to the council to consider tonight. However, a provision allowing a homeowner to take one reservation at a time while the owner remains on-site has already drawn criticism. Such a homeowner would be able to rent out a room without getting the permission of neighbors regarding the practice — and that isn’t sitting well with some.

“Once again, the burden is going to fall upon the neighbors and the neighborhood to determine instances of non-compliance,” complained Lewis McReynolds, an attorney who lives on Austin Avenue in the historic Castle Heights neighborhood. “Even then, the likelihood of any violations being brought to the city’s attention will come so after the fact and with little ability other than he said/she said for the city staff to prove up.”

Some claim overreaction

Strong words, sternly delivered before the Plan Commission last month. On the other side of the coin, commissioners heard from Steve and Tricia Wood, who own a short-term rental on Chapel Ridge Road and insisted all the uproar is overblown. To quote Steve Wood: “We have lawyers, we have engineers, we have DEA agents who have stayed [with us]. What is the concern for the neighborhood with these type of people staying?”

Wood noted that, two doors down, a neighbor had lived for two years without running water and allowed the residence to decline till it literally stank. Someone finally bought the place at a foreclosure sale and gutted it and is restoring the home: “And where was the neighbors’ concern about this one?”

Feelings run strong on all this. No less than Nancy Grayson — the visionary who helped make Rapoport Academy charter schools the success they are today and now pursues a somewhat controversial construction project involving New Orleans-style cottages just off Elm Avenue in East Waco — offered a stirring public rebuke of short-term rentals in Castle Heights during a recent council meeting, noting that those who rent such facilities, whatever else, “live out of town, they’re not part of the fabric.”

She quoted architect Ross Chapin: “A neighborhood provides the setting for neighbors to develop meaningful relationships beyond the family.”

And Baylor University vice president Tommye Lou Davis, a pivotal figure in the Baptist institution’s recent, often tumultuous history, referred movingly to Castle Heights’ historic designation — an unlikely prospect, she said, had state officials suspected pockets of it might one day be commercialized: “One of the things that’s unique about Castle Heights is that we all know our neighbors. There’s a feeling of community, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, and we don’t want that to be lost. You can see from just the applications that we are in danger of losing something very special.”

At the same meeting, distressed Austin Avenue resident Gary Hardie noted the area is already under stress: “We now have two vans that run all day long up and down the street showing people this historic neighborhood. It’s created quite a bit of traffic. They stop at the gorilla [the locally familiar, smile-inducing statue at 3429 Austin Avenue], they stop at the [Cottonland] Castle and actually let people out, and I think this is exploding and is going to continue for a number of years. There are people seeing that TV program. It’s having a huge impact.”

It would be comforting to think this battle between the basic principle of maintaining neighborhood character versus the principle of strict property rights wasn’t personal, but it has clearly become so. During the May 9 council meeting, neighbors attacked the situation Robert and Jeanneatte Geary created when they turned their home into a short-term rental for Baylor alumni. The Gearys say they made this decision only after their Castle Heights home was burglarized after they temporarily relocated to Houston to tend to ailing parents. Robert Geary, a busy Baylor alumnus who insisted he and his wife eventually intended to return to live in the neighborhood, fired back at those neighbors now denouncing him.

“I feel like I’m in a political race,” he told the council. “My father started in the same positions you’re in. He ended up as county judge. I would sit at the dinner table with him and listen to him say every night practically: ‘They want us to pick up the garbage, but they don’t want us to put the dump next door to them.’”

Then he turned to his neighbors: “Well, I’m not the trash. I’m not the garbage dump. I was willing to be a neighbor.”

Challenge for city

City Planning Director Clint Peters and his staff have bent over backwards to tweak, amend and readjust the proposed ordinance to render it reasonable to all, but the challenge of their task remains immense. If you live in an engaging neighborhood like Karem Park or Castle Heights, you’re likely to be sensitive to anything amiss and see it as a sign of worse things to come. And you could well be right.

During the May 9 council meeting, one Castle Heights resident saw her bid for a permit to continue running a bed-and-breakfast operation snuffed amid concerns such as parked cars — the latter admittedly all too often the sign of a neighborhood in decline and, in even modest numbers, a clear safety hazard. As a neighbor with two small children complained, the bed-and-breakfast driveway was narrow “and, if they have guests stay, the guests aren’t going to be allowed to park on the street [by ordinance] but the owners of the house are going to need to park on the street. Otherwise, they’ll be moving cars around and no one’s going to do that.”

The B&B owner assured the council and neighbors she would do whatever was necessary to accommodate such parking concerns, but it was too late. The council killed her permit application and the bed-and-breakfast proprietor suffered the final indignity of hearing her defeat applauded by her neighbors — a display the mayor quite correctly branded as inappropriate.

Yet arguments such as the one about private cars parked on public streets can cut both ways. During another hearing on a bed-and-breakfast operation in West Waco, a homeowner complained about the narrowness of the street and the dangers for children from cars parked on it: “When cars park on both sides of the road, it’s a one-way road.” Yet when the B&B operator noted that residents themselves are routinely parking on the very same street, safety to small fry be damned, it pretty well negated the complainant’s argument. The council ruled in favor of the B&B owner.

Whatever the council decides tonight, it would be well-advised — given the angst in some neighborhoods — to resolve now to revisit this issue in a year or two to see if the proposed ordinance, if approved, actually works as hoped. This might be an added incentive for short-term rental owners to toe the line at the very outset while offering skeptical neighbors an opportunity to see if such short-term arrangements can quietly and properly fit in.

That said, if I were operating a short-term rental in a neighborhood full of skeptics and naysayers, it might be worth the investment to throw a barbecue bash for all the neighbors once in a while.

Retired city engineer and assistant city manager Joe Mayfield, who now sits on the Plan Commission and has seen and heard it all, wisely suggested that neighbors intolerant of short-term residential rent-outs keep in mind that things could be worse — lots worse: “I would a whole lot rather be living next to somebody with a short-term rental permit where I could call City Hall and say ‘Would you send somebody out here to check this out and revoke the permit?’ than live next to somebody who rents to no-telling-what and I can’t get to sleep till 12 at night.”

Bill Whitaker is the Waco Tribune-Herald opinion editor.