City follows county’s lead, bans new lodging

Temporary measure to allow staff to increase standards

The Moab City Council voted Tuesday, July 23, to pass ordinances that remove lodging as a protected use within city limits, effectively extending its lodging moratorium indefinitely and with a target date of Oct. 31 to replace it with new rules.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

The Moab City Council quietly approved an ordinance that temporarily removes as a use by right future overnight lodging developments while staff, led by City Planner Nora Shepard, creates new standards.

Three citizens spoke to the issue, two in support and one who was adamantly opposed, before the council voted unanimously to approve the measure.

The only point of concern was Shepard’s suggested deadline of Oct. 31. None of the council members thought that was realistic and neither did City Manager Joel Linares. And while no timeline was established, council members agreed the new standards could be in place by the end of the year.

The timing is not coincidental. The city council hopes to lobby Utah lawmakers for help addressing tourism impacts when the 2020 session opens Jan. 27.

“We’re not putting in a hard stop” on future overnight developments, said Council Member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor Emily Niehaus. Knuteson-Boyd cited the reasons behind the action, which follows in the wake of an identical decision the Grand County Council made last week, albeit with a bit more drama than what unfolded at this Tuesday’s Moab City Council meeting.

The intent of both the city and county ordinances is, quite simply, to get a grip on growing tourism and the proliferation of hotels, motels and other overnight accommodations. The findings in the city’s ordinance report that overnight lodging has grown rapidly along with the number of visitors.

In the eight years between 2010 and 2018, visitor growth to Arches and Canyonlands national parks grew by 60.1 percent and 58.9 percent, respectively. Last year, more than 1.6 million people visited Arches and nearly 740,000 went to Canyonlands.

As a result, language in the ordinance claims overnight accommodations have “displaced long-term rental housing in Moab and are a contributing factor in the affordable housing shortage that exists in Moab.”

The ordinance also notes the “finite supply” of developable land within city limits. The development of overnight accommodations – which are popular due to their profitability – have pushed out other commercial uses, including retail and office space, as well as housing, officials say.

The increase in tourism has created a decrease in the quality of life for residents, according to the city’s ordinance, and those residents’ concerns “are valid and justify changes to city zoning regulations.”

The net result of the ordinance is that overnight accommodations of all types have been removed as a permitted use in every zone in the City of Moab.

As noted earlier, the discussion was not without rancor. Robert Hines pleaded with the council not to violate “people’s property rights.”

“I’m being pitched as an evil developer,” said a visibly angry Hines, who previously sent a harshly worded letter to the city regarding the issue. Hines said be began efforts to develop his Highway 191 property two years ago, but his plans did not conform to the rules in place at that time. He said Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine told him he needed to build a hotel on the property.

Hines said he “went and found investors,” but apparently not in time to get his plans in before the moratorium on overnight lodging developments was imposed in February.

“I don’t think you can legislate people into what you want,” said Hines, who said the city’s action was being taken due to affordable housing issues.

On that subject, he was adamant that local governments are chasing a pipe dream. “Affordable housing is a fantasy. Contractors charge $300 a square foot,” and until those prices drop, he said, building residences that a typical Moabite could afford won’t happen. He also said he would rather let his property in “historic downtown Moab” remain vacant for 100 years than use it to develop affordable housing.