[Photo courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute]

Cities and counties would lose their power to regulate owner-occupied short-term rentals, under a proposed bill that cleared a Utah House committee last week.

The Utah House Business and Labor Committee voted 13-1 in favor of a measure from state Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, that would ban municipalities from prohibiting overnight and short-term rentals in cases where the owner lives on-site. House Bill 253 would also prevent local government entities from using websites like Airbnb to identify property owners who are renting rooms to overnight visitors – even if those owners are violating local laws. However, cities and counties would retain the ability to ban or regulate short-term rentals of “whole properties” that a homeowner does not occupy.

“To me, this is a very reasonable approach to this bill,” Knotwell said, according to The Associated Press.

County and city officials counter that the bill imposes a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach that would hamper their ability to address the “exponential shortage” of affordable housing in the community.

“(HB 253) would destroy any hope of us ever creating any affordable housing,” Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann said.

“It’s very much a concern of the city for what this might do to the community,” Moab City Council member Kalen Jones said.

While other communities like St. George are grappling with similar woes, the limited availability of affordable housing is especially acute in Moab and Spanish Valley, as more and more primary residential homes are converted to overnight rentals for out-of-town guests. According to Jones, a recently updated affordable housing plan found that vacant secondary homes now account for nearly one-third of the county’s housing stock – housing that Moab’s workforce and other year-round local residents could otherwise occupy.

“It’s not a particularly efficient use of our real estate,” Jones said. “As people are often noting, we have so little non-federal land in our community, and that does have an impact in terms of developable land and the land that is developed.”

Vacation rental management company Vacasa does not have any comments on the specific text of HB 253. But Vacasa Regional Director of Operations Meghan Lutterman said that as a rule, her company supports clear and fair regulations when possible.

“Generally, we find that reasonable regulation at the community level … creates a better reputation for vacation rental managers,” she said.

On a broader scale, Lutterman said, professionally managed vacation rentals are going to deliver economic and social benefits to local communities. They create a direct economic impact through the jobs they create in town, as well as an indirect impact by bringing tourists into the community, she said.

County council drafts letter against HB 253

As it’s currently written, Grand County Council members say that HB 253 poses a “significant threat” to the county. By a 6-0 vote on Tuesday, Feb. 21, the council voted to send a letter to state lawmakers that outlines its concerns about the bill. Council member Rory Paxman was absent from the meeting.

The council’s letter notes that although nightly accommodations play an important role in the local economy, they come with economic and social costs, as well as greater land-use planning challenges.

“If HB 253 were to become law, it would convert our immense (affordable housing) challenge into an unfeasible task and would subsequently drag our community into disarray,” the letter says. “This is a perfect example of why local control is best.”

Jones said that representatives from the Utah League of Cities and Towns have already chimed in against the bill. In particular, he said, they’ve criticized the state legislature’s efforts to “nibble away at” a local government’s ability to regulate land use within its own borders.

For both Jones and McGann, the bill’s stance toward the local decision-making process is noteworthy, because state lawmakers routinely criticize a distant federal government’s control over public lands in Utah.

“It’s somewhat ironic, given the noise they make regarding federal lands,” Jones said. “They seem to be at least as guilty of that purported excess as the feds, at least in word – hopefully not in deed.”

“This is a state that screams ‘overreach,’ and yet they have no problem overreaching the counties,” McGann said.

The Libertas Institute of Salt Lake City, which advocates for “individual liberty, private property and free enterprise,” said that ordinances to restrict or ban short-term rentals violate property rights in a “very unreasonable fashion.”

“(Allowing) your Grandmother to stay with you for a few days is no different than allowing a traveler to do the same,” the institute said in a statement in support of the bill.

Speaking as a private citizen, Grand County Planning Commission member and retired Realtor Joe Kingsley rejected the argument that the state should have the final say in the local decision-making process.

“I think that the control should be at the city and county level because that’s where the impact is, and I cannot even remotely justify state control,” he said.

Kingsley said that the legislative actions like the House committee’s are ultimately incapable of mirroring the realities on the ground in places like Moab and Spanish Valley.

“It does not reflect the citizens of the community,” he said.

County, city officials see HB 253 as state overreach on owner-occupied short-term units

This is a state that screams ‘overreach,’ and yet they have no problem overreaching the counties.