Local officials question intent of Utah Legislature’s bill governing short-term rentals

A bill that would prevent municipalities from “restricting speech” on short-term rental websites is winding its way through the Utah Legislature this week. Local officials have raised concerns about the bill, House Bill 253, whose earlier versions would have also prevented legislative bodies from enforcing local zoning codes related to short-term rentals.

Although the provisions regarding code enforcement have been removed, many in Moab remain puzzled by the bill, questioning whether HB 253 is another attempt by certain legislators to rollback local control over zoning laws, especially with regard to overnight accommodations.

“I’ve been working on this damn thing for over a year. This is the best it’s going to get,” Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said about the bill’s latest version, last amended March 2.

If the bill passes in its current form, municipalities cannot create any ordinances that prohibit individuals from advertising a short-term rental on a website, nor punish those individuals for doing so.

“This bill simply says that listing a short-term rental on a short-term rental website is advertising and as such it is not an illegal activity,” said Rep. John Knotwell, the bill’s co-sponsor on Feb. 27. “It further says that a political subdivision may not penalize a resident based solely on that action.”

But the bill’s language raises questions for local officials, including Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine, whose office oversees code enforcement in the county.

Currently, Grand County allows owner-occupied bed and breakfasts in all residential zones, and non-owner occupied short-term rentals in the highway commercial zone district and the overnight accommodations overlay zone.

Moab city allows bed and breakfasts in the R-3 and R-4 residential zones as conditional uses, and allows short-term rentals in only the C-2, C-3 and C-4 commercial districts with certain restrictions.

Levine said that if the bill passes, individuals advertising short-term rentals outside of what is allowed in city and county zoning codes are basically protected in their right to advertise an illegal activity.

“ … It codifies in state code an owner’s right to advertise an illegal use or activity,” Levine said. “Where else in state code do we codify such a right? It’s bizarre to me that the Utah Legislature is even considering such a bill. It seems only reasonable to question the underlying motivations and long-term implications of HB 253.”

During a house debate on the bill, Rep. LaVar Christensen asked the bill’s sponsor to provide a “hypothetical” as to what the bill addresses and “who needs it, and what it’s going to do for them.”

Responding, Knotwell simply reiterated his description of the bill, saying that a city “cannot fine or cite someone simply for the act of listing their property on a short-term rental website.”

Although Knotwell added that municipalities can still regulate short-term rentals “100 percent,” there are questions as to how local legislative bodies will actually do that if the bill passes.

Because a listing on a short-term rental website cannot be used as sole proof of a zoning violation under the bill, municipalities must now compile a larger body of evidence that a zoning violation has occurred.

“And basically that’s what we’re going to do,” Sakrison said.

But finding that additional evidence evidence, according to Levine, might burden municipalities with more work, which could become “challenging.”

“While not impossible, gathering substantial amounts of additional evidence becomes challenging for municipalities,” Levine said.

Currently, Levine estimates that several dozen short-term rentals have been found out of compliance since the county began tracking short-term rental websites several years ago. There are likely many more, he said, “in potentially grey areas of compliance,” such as bed and breakfasts operating outside of what is permitted in the county’s bed and breakfast ordinance.

Recently, both Grand County and Moab city invested in software that tracks illegal short-term rental listings on websites. Moab City Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Reinhart said the software scans vacation rental websites for overnight rentals, flagging illegal properties when they appear online.

“In the past, we have spent hours reviewing these sites and noting those advertised [short-term rental] properties that are not in a legal zone,” Reinhart said. “ … Once this [software] is up and running we will spend much less time on locating the illegal [short-term rentals].”

Local officials have said that tracking illegal short term rentals is important for both the city and the county. Not only are such operations working outside of local zoning codes, but they do not pay transient room taxes and contribute to the lack of affordable housing, officials said.

“Short-term rentals have a significant impact on communities because they affect the availability of affordable housing,” said the Moab City Council and the Grand County Council in a joint letter to the Legislature. “While developing adequate overnight accommodations is critical to our local economies, the unregulated commercialization of residences [in] traditionally residential zones has more negative impacts than benefits.”

Although HB 253 removed its language barring municipalities from enforcing their zoning codes with regard to short-term rentals, Sakrison cautioned both Grand County and Moab city that future legislation may still attempt to do so. This is not a new issue, he said, adding that he and other officials throughout the state have worked over the years to prevent the Legislature from passing similar bills.

“Is it going to be over with? No. This is going to be a constant battle with the state Legislature,” Sakrison said. “I’m not that naïve to say that this is the end of the story.”

Both county and city councils have voiced their opposition to the bill in its various versions, arguing that local control is best when it comes to zoning laws on overnight accommodations.

“Local governments, with local expertise and local input, are better able to manage the opportunities and challenges presented by short term rentals,” both council said in a joint letter.

The public can track the progress of the bill by searching for “HB 253” on Utah’s Legislative website: le.utah.gov.

ByBy Molly Marcello

The Times-Independent