Steamboat Springs Six years after city officials adopted an ordinance to regulate vacation home rentals, roughly half of such homes in Steamboat Springs likely are operating without a permit, and city officials say those with permits are governed by unclear, ambiguous rules.
Vacation home rentals are homes in residential neighborhoods that are rented to short-term vacationers and sometimes used for private functions. How to govern them has been a topic of passionate public debate for months, and is the sole item on the agenda for the Steamboat Springs City Council's meeting at Centennial Hall on Tuesday night.
"We're going to have a packed house," City Council President Susan Dellinger said.
The city has issued more than 50 vacation rental permits since adopting a regulatory ordinance in 2001, but in recent months - spurred by a raucous wedding last August that brought more than 100 guests, and the police, to a vacation home rental on Ridge Road - the issue has led to revocation hearings, quasi-judicial proceedings and a lawsuit filed against the city by homeowners.
In February, the City Council placed a 90-day ban on new vacation rental permits, citing a need to address residents' concerns and revise unclear sections of the 2001 ordinance.
Work on those revisions begins Tuesday.
The vacation home industry likely provides income for more than 100 Steamboat homeowners, more than double the amount permitted by the city.
"I'm certain that there are a lot of these homes out there that are not permitted," Tom Leeson, director of the city's planning department, said this week.
Evlyn Berge, who manages vacation rentals for 24 homes through her business, Special Places of Steamboat, said there are as many as 110 vacation home rentals in Steamboat. Many more likely operate outside city limits, primarily in North Routt and the Tree Haus subdivision area, according to Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak.
"That's not allowed at all out in the county," Stahoviak said. "We'll be having a discussion about nightly vacation rentals (at the county level) also."
The industry has exponential, positive impacts on local employment - providing boosts to catering, massage therapy and housekeeping businesses - but raises concerns about traffic and noise issues in residential neighborhoods. Several people on different sides of the debate submitted written arguments and proposals to city staff this week.
The Ridge Road Homeowners Association, for example, submitted 28 pages of recommendations, with examples of vacation rental ordinances across the country, to City Clerk Julie Jordan.
"What we're looking for is a situation where vacation home rentals do not impact the neighborhood greater than a residential use by right," said Ridge Road resident Bill Moser. "Once you lose control of your zoning, you lose control of your city."
The Ridge Road association has filed a lawsuit against the city, protesting a ruling by the City Council in favor of Bear Berry Cottage, a Ridge Road vacation home rental that hosted the August wedding. The lawsuit also challenges the constitutionality of issuing vacation home rental permits without prior notification of neighboring homeowners.
City attorney Tony Lettunich said the litigation is "early in the process" and pending a response by the city, which has referred the litigation to the Denver firm Hall & Evans.
Bear Berry manager Laurrelle Crawford has extensively apologized for the August wedding, which she described as a one-time, out-of-hand occurrence. The City Council has found Bear Berry Cottage in compliance with city codes and ruled in February that Crawford can no longer host weddings at the large, multi-story home.
Crawford also gave Jordan a response to the Ridge Road recommendations, as did Berge, who is president of the Steamboat Springs Vacation Home Rentals Alliance.
"We do not support changes to the vacation home rental permit process that would make the application more convoluted and subject to discretionary choices," Berge said of the alliance's position.
Under the radar
Berge acknowledged only 10 of the homes she manages for rentals are permitted.
"They are not all permitted - and the reason is, to tell you the truth, I didn't know we still had to get permits," Berge said Friday. "But every house I represent would easily meet the (city's) criteria. I don't feel like I'm doing anything illegal, and I'm paying taxes on all of them."
The city permits vacation home rentals through a conditional land-use approval process that requires the owner to meet numerous criteria, such as a limited number of simultaneous guests and vehicles.
But much of the criteria language is unclear.
"The way our ordinance is written right now, there is potential for total mockery of the original intent," City Council member Towny Anderson said last month.
Berge has managed vacation rentals in Steamboat for 25 years. She said she allows a maximum of 10 people to stay per night at the 3,200-square-foot "Links and Logs" home she manages on Mark Twain Lane. The home is owned by a Texas couple, and rents for between $785 and $1,300 per night during the winter and $470 a night in the summer.
"If you rent for 90 nights a year, that's great," Berge said, citing the competitive Steamboat lodging market.
Berge said she rents homes to families who use them for gatherings such as family reunions that do not disrupt the surrounding neighborhood.
"They're not coming to party," Berge said.
But Moser and residents such as Chuck Williamson, who lives near a vacation home rental on Meadow Lane, say the continuous, short-term rentals create a constant flow of traffic, noise and visitors who do not respect property boundaries.
"Residents tend to work their problems out because they're there for a longer period of time, but these shorter stays don't allow that to happen - they allow a recurrence of the problems," Moser said. "There are some quite good management companies, but we do have a problem with people holding out a rental property for large gatherings on a regular basis - absolutely."
Leeson, director of the planning department, said on Tuesday night he will provide the City Council with a "matrix" of options for revising and strengthening the city's vacation home rental ordinance. The matrix will address topics including the city's approval process for permits, the size of homes used for vacation rentals, enforcement of regulations, the amount of vacation rentals in specific neighborhoods and a renewal process for permits.
"With all of these issues, we have to make sure the language is clear," Leeson said. "The ordinance has some flaws, but I don't think we need major overhauls. Vacation home rentals have been operating since 2001, and we really haven't had that many complaints. : There's no question that some of the impacts we're experiencing weren't anticipated, but that doesn't mean the whole thing is broken."