Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rental Homes in Residential Neighborhoods

Rental issue rises again
City leery of revisiting contentious vacation home ordinance
By Brandon Gee (Contact) Steamboat Pilot / TODAY
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Springs City Councilman Jon Quinn calls re­­opening the debate about vacation home rentals “a scary proposition.”

Quinn made his comment at a Jan. 22 City Council meeting at which the majority of council members said they did not want to address the controversial issue, despite the identification of steps that could be taken to improve the city’s existing policies.

“I don’t want to open that now because we’ve got some other things we need to do,” Councilman Steve Ivancie said Tuesday. “We just aren’t prepared to discuss it at this time.”

The issue goes to the heart of a tourism-related industry that for years has fueled clashes between homeowners and property managers. Members of the newly seated City Council appear just as torn on the issue as the broader community. The city also is finding enforcement difficult, while at least one vacation rental owner is so fed up that he plans to sell his property.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, Director of Planning and Community Development Tom Leeson provided a “progress report” on the vacation home rental ordinance adopted in August by the previous City Council. The ordinance was the subject of quasi-judicial hearings and numerous lengthy meetings in 2006 and 2007. It replaced a similarly contentious 2001 ordinance with one slightly more demanding on vacation rental owners and operators.

Leeson recommended the City Council allow a change to the submittal requirements for vacation rental site plans. But when it came to tweaking the ordinance’s requirement for an access agreement, Leeson advised the City Council against opening that “can of worms.”

“That was a major sticking point in the drafting of this ordinance,” Leeson said.

Vacation home rentals are residential homes that are rented to short-term vacationers and sometimes used for private functions. Owners and operators were previously required to get their neighbors’ agreement to an access agreement for such homes. The new ordinance is much more stringent in that it requires the consent of all owners whose properties must be passed on private roads to access a vacation home.

Council differences
In addition to the public disagreement the issue would surely draw, there likely would be plenty of divisiveness among council members as well.

Councilman Scott Myller said vacation home rentals are just one of the drawbacks that citizens of a resort town must accept and noted their importance to the local economy.

“I will support vacation home rentals until I’m blue,” Myller said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Quinn said he “would prefer to draw the line more harshly” and totally disallow anything but long-term rentals.

“What we’ve done is put this mechanism in place to encourage second-home ownership,” Quinn said. “I think our neighborhoods should be our neighborhoods and our commercial districts should be our commercial districts.”

Such disagreements will mean little, of course, unless the political will is mustered to actually confront the issue. Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski has hopes that the council will do just that.

“When the past City Council passed the last ordinance, they said they would revisit it and revisit it often because it was such a contentious issue,” Hermacinski said Tuesday. “I would definitely go there.”

Hermacinski said the ordinance has put additional strains on vacation property owners and managers who are trying to abide by the city’s policies, while doing little to crack down on those who continue to operate vacation rentals without a license.

“I support opening it up and making changes,” Hermacinski said Tuesday. “We’re rewarding the people who don’t comply, and we’re penalizing the people who do. That’s not good policy.”

Access and enforcement
Suzie Spiro, owner of Colorado Mountain Rentals, has addressed the City Council often in recent weeks about perceived problems with the vacation home rental ordinance. She said the issue proved so maddening for the owner of one property she manages, that he decided to sell the house and be done with it.

“He’s very frustrated with the interpretation of the city and he’s selling his house,” Spiro said Wednesday.

Spiro said that in some instances, it is too difficult for owners and property managers to procure the access agreement required by the current ordinance. In the case of the owner who decided to sell, Spiro said the access agreement is excessive when a vacation home is located on a private road with 14 property owners who live all over the world.

Noting the problem of tracking down various property owners — and the fact that some will simply ignore such attempts — Hermacinski said she would be in favor of changing the access-agreement requirement so that after a period of time, the vacation home is allowed to operate “unless there is an affirmative objection from neighbors.”

Spiro also is frustrated by the city’s enforcement efforts — or lack thereof.

“What really burns me up is there are people out there renting and not paying their sales taxes,” Spiro said. “That’s not fair.”

City officials acknowledge that enforcing vacation rental policies is a challenge but say they are taking steps to increase their efforts, which have remained complaint-based thus far. City Manager Alan Lanning said the Steamboat Springs Police Department and the public works and planning departments have begun meeting weekly to coordinate their efforts. Also, Leeson said his department would be adding an additional enforcement officer soon.

Lanning also has floated the idea of adding sales tax auditors to the city’s finance department as a way to identify those who are not following the rules. Interim Director of Finance Bob Litzau said his staff already trolls newspaper ads and Web sites to cross-reference vacation-home listings with city records. If a home doesn’t have a license, the owner is notified and asked to get one and to file past tax returns.