ST. GEORGE – A bill that would take away the ability of counties and municipalities to ban short-term rentals in the case of owner-occupied units passed out of a legislative committee earlier this week. While supporters of the bill are pleased it is off to a good start, opponents are not.
The proposed Short-Term Rental Amendments law, designated as House Bill 253, would prohibit a political subdivision of the state from disallowing a homeowner using a part of his or her home for nightly rental. It also blocks a city or county from enforcing anti-short-term rental ordinances based on online listings.
Arguments for and against the bill were heard by the House Business and Labor Committee Monday. Despite opposition to the bill, it passed out of committee with a favorable recommendation in a 13-1 vote. The only nay vote came from Rep. Stanard, R-St. George.
Stanard told St. George News following the vote that while he is conflicted over the matter, as he uses short-term rentals while traveling himself, he voted against the bill as a show of support for St. George officials.
Both Stanard and St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who testified at the hearing Monday, said tourism-heavy St. George would be particularly affected by the bill if it passes.
While St. George allows for short-term rentals in specific parts of the city like Green Valley and Entrada and in some cases of incoming developments, short-term rentals in residential areas are prohibited.
Short-term rentals themselves are defined as a unit or partial-units that are rented out for less than 30 days. These rentals are typically accessed through websites like Airbnb and Vrbo.
Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, the bill’s sponsor, told the House Business and Labor Committee Monday that the bill is meant to strike a balance between property rights and local regulation.
“I believe (this) is a reasonable approach to protecting property rights while still allowing an enormous amount of local control,” Knotwell said.
The bill specifically addresses owner-occupied short-term rentals, where the homeowner is present and not out-of-town. In the latter case, the bill leaves it to cities and counties to regulate as they see fit.
While municipalities wouldn’t be able to enact a blanket ban on the owner-occupied rentals, Knotwell said, they would remain free to regulate aspects surrounding them. He pointed to ordinances related to noise, trash and parking as examples of such regulation.
Owner-occupied situations themselves account for a small percentage of short-term rentals, St. George resident Stephen Palmer told St. George News, estimating it to be around 2-7 percent of the overall market.
Palmer was an Airbnb host in St. George for around a year, renting out his basement to guests who applied through the website. His family averaged $1,000 a month from the short-term rental. He also noted he had no idea at the time that short-term rentals were in violation of city code.
The city sent Palmer a notice in the mail in May 2015 telling him he was in violation and potentially faced a misdemeanor charge if he did not comply.
“What was particularly disturbing about the notice of violation was how it was served,” Palmer told the committee. “The letter stated that a code enforcement officer had been in my neighborhood and ‘conducted an inspection,’ and observed a violation. This was simply not true. To put it bluntly, it was a flat out lie.”
No one ever came to his home, Palmer said, and claimed that the city only found out about the short-term rental through the Airbnb website.
Palmer would go on to challenge the city’s short-term rental regulations. The issue was picked up by local- and state-level media for a time as well. The St. George City Council, after a series of meetings and deliberations, ultimately decided to continue enforcement against short-term rentals.
Before the city sent the notice, no one appeared to know Palmer had been renting out his home – not even the mayor who lives two house down from him. Palmer said:
As soon as we received the notice of violation we immediately went to (the mayor’s) office and visited with him. I asked him directly, ‘Did you know we were doing this?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Did we do anything to hurt you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Did we affect your property values?’ He said, ‘No.’
We did absolutely nothing to hurt anyone else. And yet we are the ones being threatened. These types of codes create lawbreakers unnecessarily, because there is no criminal intent and there are no victims.
Pike, who attended the hearing along with members of the St. George City Council and City Manager Gary Esplin, said they were there representing what they believed to be the “vast majority” of St. George and the surrounding area.
“There are unintended consequences of this,” Pike said in regard to allowing short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. “We believe it puts neighborhoods in conflict more than they already are. I had that in my own neighborhood and it’s difficult. It’s not fun. Love my neighbors, the Palmers, and yet it’s difficult because I’m getting it from both sides, even in my own neighborhood.”
Pike primarily argued against the state taking regulatory power out of the hands of the cities and that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t the answer.
“We believe local regulation … is probably best,” he said, adding that if the residents of St. George don’t agree with how the City Council is approaching the issue, they have the power to remove and replace council members with their vote.
“We feel like local government governs best, the government closest to the people governs best,” said Cameron Diehl, director of government relations for the Utah League of Cities and Towns. The League has worked with Knotwell on the bill, yet currently stands opposed to it as it seeks additional refinement and compromise.
See Pike interview in media player top of this report.
If the bill is passed, it will be left to the cities to enforce the new rules. Pike said the city would do it if it had to, though noted it would be a difficult prospect and be at a new cost to the city.
“By requiring the owner to be present, you have a built-in enforcement mechanism,” Conner Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said as he addressed the committee.
Short-term rental hosts who live in their homes “have a vested interest in keeping their homes and properties clean, well-maintained, safe and attractive,” Palmer said.
Elements of home sharing are self-regulating, supporters have said. In the case of Airbnb, both hosts and guests post reviews of each other, thus filtering out potential troublemakers.
“Sound public policy should focus on individual actors and not a few bad apples. Don’t let (the few) be responsible for violating the rights of the many,” Boyack said in an interview with St. George News.
“St. George especially paints the issue with a broad brush and needs to (be) reined in,” he said.
Boyack also said it is appropriate and reasonable for the state to step in and “rein in” its cities and towns when they overstep their authority – authority given by the state in the first place.
Sandy resident Scott Sabey voiced his opposition to the bill, saying that short-term rental hosts are taking advantage of their neighbors who work hard to create nice and quiet neighborhoods.
There is also a question of safety, he said, as people who use short-term rentals likely aren’t as invested in the area as regular residents and may also not have the best of intentions.
In addition to concerns over the character of potential short-term rental guests, other arguments against short-term rentals – particularly in residential neighborhoods – include worries over property value impacts, increases in traffic and parking, trash and noise.
Pike said Thursday that neither he nor the City Council really have issues with the concept of short-term rentals and even favor the idea. However, they oppose the proposed law due to its taking local zoning and regulatory control from the city. They also feel the bill is too broad in how it approaches the idea of enforcement.
“I think it’s a fairly good idea to leave it open to the municipalities in how they want to deal with it,” Pike said. “Right now there are too many questions.”
The bill now moves to the House floor. As it moves forward, Pike said, there will be many opportunities to discuss it with Knotwell, the bill’s sponsor, and seek additional refinements.
- Read the bill:
- Contact legislators:
- Bill Sponsor: Rep. John Knotwell
- Southern Utah Sens. Ralph Okerlund, Don Ipson, Evan Vickers and David Hinkins | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Walt Brooks, Merrill Nelson, Brad Last, John Westwood, Mike Noel, V. Lowry Snow and Jon Stanard | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives
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