Vacation rentals would be decimated under new Washington County proposal, property owners say

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CONTRIBUTED CONTENT — Is this the beginning of the end for vacation rentals in Washington County? Property managers and owners are speaking out against proposed amendments to zoning ordinances that would restrict the operation of short-term rentals in unincorporated areas. 

Local property manager Tyson Isham said he feels a responsibility to make sure the Washington County Commission doesn’t pass unjust legislation that strips property owners of their rights. Although the proposed legislation only applies to property on county land, he shared concerns about what the future may hold for short-term rentals operating within city limits. 

“The hotels have been pushing very hard to limit and restrict vacation rentals in any way they can,” he said. “If the county makes a move like this, it’s going to be much easier for the cities, with the pressure from the hotels, to follow suit.” 

In response to the proposed amendments, property owners and managers have created a Facebook group called Washington County Property Rights and STR to gather and encourage members of the community to speak out against the restrictions. 

The Washington County Planning Commission will vote whether to recommend the amendments to the County Commission on Tuesday. 

The proposed legislation stipulates that short-term rental properties must be owner-occupied. Isham said such arrangements are less of a vacation rental and more of a bed-and-breakfast, which isn’t feasible for the vast majority of property owners. 

“It would turn 96% of our short-term rental market illegal overnight,” he said. “They have said they would grandfather in anyone who’s already operating legally under the current regulations; however, I don’t think that promise really holds any water.” 

Isham also expressed concern about the proposed amendment which stipulates that all short-term rentals and their guests would be subject to visits and code enforcement inspections from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, which he deems a glaring violation of Constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.

In May, the Washington County Commission passed a six-month moratorium on approval of new vacation rental applications in unincorporated parts of the county while they reviewed regulatory policies. Currently, the county requires that all short-term rentals be licensed and operated by a professional property manager. Guests must abide by the rules of conduct stipulated in the “Good Neighbor Policy.”

Isham said that if the county had administered these rules more strictly from the beginning, they wouldn’t be receiving complaints from nearby residents, which commonly include issues related to noise, trash and parking. But rather than enforcing the existing rules, he said the county has drafted new legislation that would effectively halt the operation of most short-term rentals on unincorporated land.

Isham said restricting short-term rental operations would deal a massive blow to the local tourism economy. Vacation rental properties across Washington County host hundreds of thousands of visitors every year on holiday weekends and during events like the Ironman triathlon and the St. George Marathon. 

Many tourists would rather stay in a vacation rental than a hotel, Isham said, particularly if they’re part of a large group or plan to explore the area for several nights or longer. Vacation rentals outside of city limits also fill a gap in the market, as there are currently no hotels operating on unincorporated land in Washington County. 

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Isham said prohibiting short-term rentals on county land would result in loss of employment for several hotels worth of people as well as millions of tourism dollars annually. 

“If we can’t accommodate some of these events, people will just stop traveling here.” 

Recognizing that Washington County residents have mixed feelings about short-term rentals, Isham said there’s no denying the amount of revenue they generate for the local economy. Furthermore, he contends that banning vacation rentals would cause property values to nosedive abruptly due to a loss of investment dollars and an influx of homes hitting the market. 

Isham said vacation rentals that are already operating illegally would simply continue to do so under the new legislation, while reputable property owners and managers that follow the rules will be punished. The existing laws and regulations are sufficient, and the issue could be resolved if the term “tourist home” was changed to short-term rental in the zoning ordinance. If the county enforces the “Good Neighbor Policy,” which includes evicting guests in violation of the rules, he sees no reason to restrict vacation rentals.

“Our ideal outcome would be for the county to vote to maintain their current legislation with no changes and to put a plan of action in place enforcing their current legislation to the letter,” he said. “I’m hoping that property owners and property managers will show up to voice their opinion and defend their rights instead of having them swept away in the dark of night.”  

The Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers of the Washington County Administration Building, located at 197 E. Tabernacle St. in St. George. Members of the public may attend and offer comments in person or via Zoom. The sole item on the agenda is the proposed amendments to zoning regulations relating to short-term rentals. 

Written by ALEXA MORGAN for St. George News.

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