In a show of unity, the Grand County and Moab City councils pressed Gov. Gary Herbert on the issue of local versus state control in managing the impacts of growth and tourism.
The governor attended a joint special meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Moab City Council chambers, where he provided an update on his 25k jobs initiative for rural Utah, and listened to the needs and concerns of local community leaders.
Grand County Council member Curtis Wells told the governor that the city and county councils are united in their opposition to proposed short-term rental amendments in House Bill 253. The bill would prevent local governments from prohibiting individuals from listing their homes on nightly rental websites.
“It’s about local control for us,” Wells said. “This bill strips away our ability to control and zone. What we’re asking for is the ability to manage our zoning on a local level.”
Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said that the nightly rental market was degrading neighborhoods and exacerbating the affordable housing issue.
“We have people renting out their bedrooms,” Sakrison said.
Herbert said that private property rights ought to guide the issue, but also said that Moab has a unique situation.
“You are the local government, we should be listening to you,” Herbert said. “Far be it for us to tell you what to do.”
Wells said that local governing bodies were also in alignment on the importance of having local control over the collection and use of Transient Room Tax (TRT) funds.
TRT is placed on guest lodging and is collected by the state, which mandates how it must be spent. Under the current law, two-thirds of the first 3 percent of revenues from the tax on hotels and other visitor accommodations must be used to establish and promote tourism, the film industry and conventions. The remaining one-third of that money can be used to mitigate the impacts of tourism and recreation.
The county, which once administered the funds, now pays a fee to the state for collection.
Wells acknowledged the benefits of tourism and TRT money to the community, saying that it is a “runaway success,” but also said that the county’s ability to manage the impacts and meet infrastructure needs is being hindered by state law.
“This is a local control issue for us,” Wells said. “Having the state step in takes tax revenue from us.”
Wells said that the county has discussed amendments to the law, and that the issue will likely appear on the county council’s agenda in the near future.
“It’s driven by a very real crisis, we’re struggling to manage the impacts of millions of visitors,” Wells said.
Herbert said he agreed that if Moab has all the tourism it could handle, funds should be spent on infrastructure.
“I understand your frustration with TRT, both the law and the collection,” Herbert said. “I think we should give you more flexibility.”
The governor opened the discussion with an update on his 25k jobs initiative, and said that Utah has one of the most diverse economies, and highest quality of life in the nation, but that there was still work to do throughout the state.
“We won’t rest until all the rural counties have the same economic opportunities that we have along the Wasatch Front,” he said. “We want to find out what it is you want to be. You’ve got to find a pathway for it and then we will help.”
Herbert said that there was a “wonderful excitement in Moab” with all of the tourism and new construction but acknowledged that along with growth come challenges.
Southeast Utah Group National Park Superintendent Kate Cannon said that visitation to Arches National Park is up 88 percent, compared to the national average of 22 percent. About 1.6 million people visited the park last year, she said.
Cannon said that the park service is working on a plan for a proposed reservation system for Arches that would spread out visitation and perhaps contribute to a year-round economy in Moab.
“This could provide a more manageable pattern and take advantage of the unused times,” Cannon said. “We want people to have a positive experience.”
Cannon also gave an update on road construction in the park, which she anticipated would be completed by November.
Herbert said that providing efficient transportation is a major issue, and that as part of Senate Bill 277, the transportation commission was preparing to appropriate $100 million for projects that have significant economic development impact associated with recreation and tourism.
“If we don’t get a handle on this our economy starts to suffer,” Herbert said. “We’ve got to get people from point A to point B. Transportation issues are directly linked to economic prosperity.”
Wells said it was a great direction for the state to go in acknowledging infrastructure issues. He said that the city and county are working together to study traffic and congestion, and that they had thrown their hat in the ring to be considered for part of the $100 million appropriation.
Wells said that Washington County and Zion National Park may have a head start, but that Grand County had “invited ourselves to the party.”
“You can’t win if you don’t enter,” Herbert said. “Have a plan what you’re advocating for. Why is the return on the investment dollar better in Grand County, better than anywhere else?”
The governor wrapped up the meeting by taking round-table comments from other members of the city and county councils.
Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd asked the governor to reconsider the state’s lowering of the blood alcohol content for DUI, which she said was harming local restaurants.
City Council member Rani Derasary said she is interested in moving forward on the nightly rentals discussion, and also expressed frustration with the city’s inability to regulate UTV use on city streets since state law allows them in rural areas.
“This has caused a lot of frustration as these very loud motors careen through our neighborhoods,” Derasary said. “We want to have more say over where they can drive.”
Grand County Council members Mary McGann and Greg Halliday echoed Derasary’s concerns. Derasary and Grand County Council member Evan Clapper questioned the governor’s views on public lands, while Wells praised the governor’s approach to the controversial Bears Ears National Monument.
Clapper also said he hopes the governor will support clean air, and that the state of Utah will work with the EPA toward that end.
Herbert said that much of the divisiveness over public lands is based on mischaracterizations over what the state’s position really is, and that no one was against clean air.
“The state’s position is clear: We are a public lands state; we will always be a public lands state,” Herbert said.
The governor closed the meeting with words of assurance to the city and county councils about zoning and local control.
“Whatever you have to do to manage your growth, it should be bottom up, not top down,” Herbert said. “I believe this philosophically.”
Overnight rentals, DUI limits and ATV noise among issues discussed with Herbert
You are the local government. We should be listening to you. Far be it for us to tell you what to do.