ST. GEORGE – In December 2014, St. George resident Stephen Palmer started renting out the basement of his family’s home to travelers through an online, short-term vacation rental service called Airbnb. While the service provides travelers with an alternative to staying in a hotel, it can also brings them into residential areas not zoned for such a use. That brings Airbnb hosts like Palmer and others in conflict with current city code.
In May, the City of St. George sent Palmer a “courtesy notice” telling him he was in was in violation of city code for providing the short-term service. If he didn’t comply with the code, he could face fines and even a possible misdemeanor-level offense. Palmer said he’s not the only one who has received a notice from the city.
“To my count, there are 51 Airbnb hosts in St. George, and everybody is starting to get these letters,” Palmer said.
St. George only allows short-term rentals in areas where zoning allows, and residential zones aren’t on the list of permitted uses.
“The reason for the short-term rental ordinance in the City of St. George is to protect the integrity of the single-family neighborhoods within our community,” Marc Mortensen, assistant to the city manager of St. George, said.
The city does allow for short-term rentals throughout the community where it is deemed appropriate, Mortensen said.
Concerns against short-term rentals arise over potentially negative impact visitors could have on a residential neighborhood. Concerns over how many people occupy a vacation home, plus the excess noise, traffic, trash and other potential nuisances, as well as impacts on property values, are commonplace when the subject is brought up.
“If you do any research at all, the phrase that you’ll hear is ‘party house,’” Palmer said. “That bothers people.”
Palmer characterized the so-called party houses as properties where the property owner lives outside of the area and basically allows a large group of guests free rein of the home. These kind of situations are the ones that generally trigger complaints against short-term rentals, Palmer said, adding he wouldn’t want to live next to a party house either.
In contrast to the out-of-town homeowner, Palmer said, he and others live in the homes they are choosing to rent out, meaning they’re invested in making sure everything runs smoothly.
“In every instant they can ever bring up … there’s not (an) owner in the home,” Palmer said. “There’s not a single complaint you will find of owner-occupied situations.”
He also said: “It’s very, very simple: any possible concerns you could ever raise on this issue, I have that same concern way more than you do because I live in the house. … I share those concerns times 10.”
None of his neighbors complained about his being an Airbnb host, Palmer said, mainly because none of them even knew he was doing it.
Even St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who lives two doors down from Palmer, had no idea Palmer was renting out his basement to travelers.
Pike said the only thing he noticed was a recurrence of cars at Palmer’s home with out-of-state license plates.
“I didn’t otherwise know anything was going on,” Pike said, “and that’s instructive.”
St. George officials only became aware of Palmer’s situation because a code enforcement officer who was looking into a complaint related to a different property online stumbled across the Palmers’ online Airbnb profile.
Around 40-50 people have stayed in Palmer’s 1,500-square foot, two-bedroom basement since December, at a cost of $70-$100 a night. This produces an average of around $1,000 a month for the Palmer family.
If he has to stop being an Airbnb host, Palmer said his family budget will be able to readjust accordingly, and it wouldn’t be a big deal in the long run. However, what about people on fixed incomes who use Airbnb for extra money? Having to stop hosting would likely be a big deal to them, he said.
For the time being however, the city won’t be enforcing the short-term rental ordinance while city officials discuss what to do about it.
“I think that’s fair, given there are questions,” Pike said.
Though he may be at odds with a part of the city code, Palmer said he isn’t fighting the city over the matter, but rather discussing it with the mayor and others. He hopes the discussion will lead to the council’s changing the standing ordinance.
In a City Council work meeting set for July 9, Palmer and others will be able to address the City Council about the city’s short-term rental ordinance.
If the council decides to make changes to the ordinance, those proposed changes then will be put up for public comment and ultimately voted on.
Items of the discussion Pike said will be addressed will include out-of-town homeowners and owner-occupied short-term rentals.
“There’s a difference there obviously, and that should weigh (in) a little bit,” Pike said, adding the council will also discuss under what conditions short-term rentals should or shouldn’t be allowed. Potential affects on the neighborhoods in general will also be considered.
There is also the element of competition, Pike said. For now, Airbnb hosts and those who engage in similar services in St. George don’t have businesses licenses or pay the room taxes required of bed and breakfast businesses and hotels.
“I would be happy to get a business license and pay taxes, but (the current ordinance doesn’t) allow me to,” Palmer said. “Of course I want to play by the same rules – I just can’t.”
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