Illegal short-term rentals – and state efforts to limit local control over land-use zoning – are not welcome in Grand County.
The Grand County Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday, March 6, to support a joint resolution with the City of Moab and the Town of Castle Valley that asks the state to strengthen local land-use authority. Council vice chair Curtis Wells was absent from the meeting, and council member Jaylyn Hawks – who owns and operates a bed and breakfast in Spanish Valley – recused herself from voting on the matter.
While the Moab City Council and the Castle Valley Town Council passed an earlier version of the resolution, county council members were divided at their previous meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 20, lacking a supermajority to approve it.
At that earlier meeting, Wells joined Rory Paxman to vote against the proposal, and asked for an opportunity to “mend” some of the language before he could support it. In the days that followed, Grand County Council chair Mary McGann worked with Wells on revisions to the resolution, and she said that he’s comfortable with the changes that council members ultimately adopted.
“We hammered it out, and we got it done,” McGann said on March 6.
The resolution backs away from previous verbiage that asked lawmakers to rescind House Bill 253, which limits a municipality’s power to clamp down on people who place online advertisements for short-term rentals. In place of that wording, it says that the passage of the law has benefited illegal short-term rentals, while making it more expensive and labor-intensive for communities to hold owners of such rentals accountable.
“We let it be known that we weren’t happy with it,” McGann said.
In response to Wells’ concerns about the previous resolution, council members clarified the wording to say that county officials are concerned about unlawful nightly rentals, as opposed to legal ones.
Former Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley said he wrote the original resolution out of frustration over state-imposed limits on a local government entity’s ability to regulate land uses.
“I don’t understand why we can’t have local land-use ordinances – that we control our communities,” Erley told the county council during its Feb. 20 meeting. “I hear about Utah wanting local control; I see it as nothing but Salt Lake (City) control right now.”
Under current Utah law, he said, the only way to enforce Castle Valley’s regulations against overnight rentals is by finding them online and then writing letters that remind the owners of the town’s rules.
“I challenge anybody in the room to tell me a different mechanism, ʼcause I never found it, and I searched and searched,” Erley said.
Moab City Council member Karen Guzman-Newton acknowledged that overnight rentals can be huge moneymakers.
“But if we don’t keep local control, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” she said on Feb. 20.
Moab City Council member Rani Derasary noted that her council passed the joint resolution unanimously at its Feb. 13 meeting.
To clear up some confusion, she said, the community’s representatives in the Utah Legislature asked for a joint resolution that would help them understand where community leaders stand on the issue of local control over short-term rentals.
It’s important to note that Castle Valley is different from the city, while the city is different from the county, she said.
“I don’t think we all want to be told by the state that, ‘Here’s a long-term type solution (that) fits all of you and you all have to follow the same model,’” Derasary said. “That undermines our ability to look at our individual communities and our commercial zones, if we have them – and our residential zones – and figure out where things fit the best for our tourists and our residents, where we’re also trying to meet local housing needs.”
Spanish Valley resident Denise Oblak said the call for greater local control over zoning decisions is simply a matter of common sense.
“If somebody is doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, there shouldn’t be a technicality on how we can call them on that,” Oblak said on Feb. 20.
Spanish Valley resident Bonita Kolb told the council that local residents are facing more and more difficulties in dealing with the incompatibilities of overnight rentals, while trying to maintain the integrity of residential neighborhoods.
“We have to be able to able to balance the concerns of people who want to preserve their neighborhoods and people who want to be able to take advantage of this economic activity,” Kolb said. “We could do it better than Salt Lake: That’s the bottom line.”
During the Feb. 20 meeting, Wells said that he’s on the same page as those who supported the previous resolution, calling local control and local zoning authority “absolutely essential.” He noted that before HB 253 passed in 2017, he worked hard to fight the bill.
As he sees it, the bill was written from the perspective that short-term rentals can serve as an economic engine for counties that don’t face the same demands as Grand County.
“They have no concept of just how stacked up that demand is for properties for short-term rentals,” Wells said. “And so, the state legislature does have a bad habit of running roughshod over their little brothers and sisters, but it was just a (naivete) of our circumstance, and there’s no logic to why they made it legal for short-term rentals to advertise on websites. There is none. It’s just where the bill was fought and where it landed.”
But Wells took issue with the way the previous joint resolution was written. Much of it, he said, was “pretty hard” on short-term rentals, and didn’t “really” distinguish between unlawful and legal rentals – the latter of which contribute to Transient Room Taxes.
“I don’t like to beat up on that part of the economy too much,” he said.
Another concern, he said, is that Utah’s legislature is “very fragile and sensitive.”
“It’s not always, like many bodies, the most logical, and if you bring up dirty laundry and advocate for a repeal on a bill like this, it is not uncommon for you to end up with a result that you didn’t intend to,” Wells said.
Utah did not wind up in a great place when lawmakers voted to allow advertising of short-term rentals, he said. But it’s “a heck of a lot better” than what they could have had, he said: “total anarchy” in the event that every residential property in the county could be granted a business license to operate short-term rentals.
Council’s 5-0 vote in support of joint resolution asks state for greater say in zoning decisions