New Buffalo mayor takes hardball approach to short-term rentals – Michigan Capitol Confidential

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Humphrey’s opposition to Airbnb-style home rentals prompted two federal lawsuits

A dispute over tourism and property rights in a small Michigan community has turned into a lawsuit, exposing a mayor’s hostility to some local residents and property owners.

John Humphrey is the mayor of New Buffalo, Michigan, a seaside town on the shores of Lake Michigan and about 70 miles from Chicago. He openly opposes more landlords using Airbnb and similar services to offer short-term rentals.

Humphrey has increased the requirements the city places on landlords who want to rent their properties to tourists. A prescription warrants that they obtain a permit and have a local agent available on call, ready to respond to complaints within 30 minutes. It also requires landlords to obtain and provide the city with the name and date of birth of renters and the license plate number of any vehicles on their rental property.

Although Humphrey is opposed to short-term rentals, tourism revenue is important to the local economy and his position has been the subject of two federal lawsuits. One is from a homeowner who claims the mayor and city violated his civil rights. Another complaint, filed on May 25, 2021, comes from a group of 17 landlords who claim their property rights are being violated.

The discovery process involved in the group’s lawsuit uncovers a series of text messages, emails and actions by the mayor that some residents consider to be bullying. In messages and emails, he disparaged some local landlords, called for their public humiliation and took steps to invalidate a landlord’s lawfully obtained rental housing permit.

The city and the mayor are also being sued by Laura Murray, who claims her First Amendment rights were violated when she was physically kicked out of a city council meeting by two police officers. Officers acted at the behest of the mayor, she said, during her peaceful testimony against the ordinance.

Murray says she was stunned when Humphrey called her off duty and then had her physically removed. The mayor, she says, consistently targets landlords who support short-term rentals, especially those in Chicago.

In a text message to Darwin Watson, the town manager, Humphrey wrote: ‘But we really need to do something about this woman, because people believe her and are going to burn this town down, at the very least you have to email her how dumb she is, without humiliating her publicly, this will continue.

Humphrey also expressed his appreciation for the ridicule that Ron Watson imposed on those present at the reunion. Watson, he said, had laughed at “some of the stupidity one of them was spouting”.

In an email from Humphrey to Watson and Gail Grosse, a recently hired municipal ordinances officer, he called another landlord, Michael Davis, “incredibly obtuse.” Davis filed open-record requests with the city, which Humphrey called “dumb paranoia.”

Humphrey wrote that he wanted to go after Davis because the city issued him rental permits for the duplexes he owns in an area reserved for single-family homes. Humphrey admitted the city granted the permits. But he said he would work with the city’s new legal representatives to pursue the case against Davis and try to force him to restore the single-family homes. In the email, Humphrey said Davis could call his action retaliatory, but he called it law enforcement.

Humphrey did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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