Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine outlines the county's highway commercial zone on a map of Spanish Valley. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Grand County’s highway commercial zone beyond Moab’s city limits would be largely off limits to new overnight rentals, under a proposed ordinance that the county council is scheduled to consider next week.

By a 5-2 vote last month, the Grand County Planning Commission recommended that the council amend current county code to limit short-term rentals within the zone, which runs along the U.S. Highway 191 corridor south of the city limits. Planning commission members Ryan McCandless and Cricket White-Green voted against the majority.

Contrary to some claims, Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said the proposal would not apply to existing overnight rentals within the district, since they would be grandfathered in as “legal nonconforming uses.”

“Should this amendment be passed – and there is no guarantee that it will be passed – existing residences used for overnight accommodations will not be affected,” he said. “They can continue to operate as overnight accommodations. This simply affects new applications.”

Nor would the proposal affect developments like Rim Village, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, RV parks and hotels or motels in the district, according to Levine. Moreover, developers would still have the ability to seek county approval on a project-by-project basis for an “overnight accommodations overlay” designation that could cover entire subdivisions and developments, he said.

However, some local Realtors and developers see the proposal as an example of government overreach, and they’re concerned about the effects it could have on their projects.

Moab Premier Properties Associate Broker Tom Shellenberger said the change would hurt clients like Red Cliff Condos developer Brad Mikesell, who purchased properties with the expectation that they can be marketed as overnight accommodations.

“That’s totally taking away people’s property rights because they bought them thinking they could do nightly rentals,” Shellenberger said. “It’s going to cost the county a lot of money to defend that.”

According to Levine, the proposal grew out of a lengthy planning commission discussion about development trends that have impacted the availability of affordable housing, workforce housing and commercial development properties in Grand County.

U.S. Census figures show that overnight rentals now account for more than 30 percent of the housing stock in the county, and recent construction and permit numbers suggest the growth in that sector will likely continue for many years.

As officials reviewed the issue, Levine said they considered restrictions within the county’s highest-density zone to preserve space for developments that are tailored to year-round residents’ housing, business and employment needs.

Levine said that the county understands the economic value of rental properties that are used as overnight accommodations. But it’s ultimately good planning practice to think ahead about the shape that the county wants its southern highway corridor to take in the coming years and decades, he said.

“It’s not about growth or no growth,” he said. “It’s about how we grow.”

Moab Premier Properties Principal Broker and owner Bryon Walston said he understands the need for more affordable housing and workforce housing in the community, although he strongly disagrees with the planning commission’s proposal.

“This is not the right way to go about it,” Walston said. “(The county) should give developers incentives to make the process less onerous … In order to get more housing, they need to make it easier for the developers to do.”

Walston said there are pros and cons to the continued growth in tourism that draws visitors to short-term rentals. But the reality, he said, is that Moab is increasingly on its way to becoming a resort community.

“Right now, the hot market is overnight rentals in town,” he said.

As he sees it, the growth of overnight rentals is a win for the county, because those property owners pay a 100 percent tax rate, while local residents pay 55 percent on the assessed value of their properties.

“The county sees more money (from) it in tax revenues,” he said.

The properties that are adjacent to the Highway 191 corridor are the most logical place for overnight rental development, Walston said, because they are easily accessible to visitors, as opposed to quiet neighborhoods elsewhere.

“Highway-commercial is where they belong,” he said. “They shouldn’t be in residential areas … get them out of the neighborhoods.”

Levine said he agrees that commercial areas are the appropriate place for short-term rentals.

“(But) there are still at least four avenues that remain within the land-use code that would enable someone to do overnight rentals (in the zone),” he said.

If approved, Levine said the ordinance will give the county more discretion over the number and location of overnight rentals in the county. As it is, he said, the county is also losing out on commercial impact fees that help pay for visitor-related strains on local infrastructure and services, such as law enforcement and search and rescue operations.

In a letter to county officials, Moab resident Don Leathers echoed many of Levine’s comments.

Leathers urged the county to prevent the southern 191 corridor from turning into “one long strip” of short-term rentals and buildings. Those buildings are typically owned by out-of-towners who “make money off Grand County’s tourist economy and send these dollars out of the county,” he wrote.

As it is, Leathers said, the continued growth in the tourist industry is overwhelming the county’s infrastructure, and more overnight rental properties would only add to the problem.

Writing in support of the proposal, Spanish Valley resident Lisa Paterson said the highway commercial zone should be used to diversify the area’s economy, and to benefit people who live and work in the community.

“We have an affordable housing shortage and it only makes sense to use this land as a solution to this problem,” she wrote.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann, who serves as the council’s liaison to the planning commission, said she’s received few comments to date, either for or against the proposal.

However, she has followed the planning commission’s discussion about the issue, and McGann said that she’s inclined at this point to go along with the advisory board’s recommendation if it comes up for a vote on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

“Unless I hear a compelling reason and unless someone can convince me that the planning commission did not study this judiciously, I will most likely listen to their recommendation,” she said.

Some Realtors, developers concerned about potential impacts on future projects in highway commercial zone