ST. GEORGE — Due to concerns that the county’s current policies regarding the regulation of vacation rentals, also popularly known as short-term rentals, are overly broad and lacking clarity, the Washington County Commission voted to put a six-month pause on the approval of any new vacation rental applications for the unincorporated parts of the county earlier this month.
“We’re not stopping forever,” Commissioner Victor Iverson said during the commission’s May 4 meeting. “It is just that our ordinance really isn’t set up with what we’re seeing on the ground, and we need to take this pause really quickly and re-evaluate it. … We’re not outlawing vacation rentals.”
The subject of short-term rentals has been a hot-bottom issue in Washington County in recent years. The matter came to a head and resulted in the end of many owner-occupied AirBnB rentals in St. George in 2015.
This, in part, led to state legislation in 2017 limiting the ways city and county officials can locate potential vacation homes within their area for the purpose of code enforcement.
So what are the issues the county is having as far as vacation rentals are concerned?
Assistant Washington County Attorney Victoria Hales told the commission that the county’s current policy on short-term rentals required the proprietors of such ventures to get a county business license and register with the state. After that, the county’s policy is very broad and vague.
Under the original ordinance, vacation homes are listed as both a permitted and conditional use in every residential zone the county has, as well as its agricultural, multifamily, and some open-space zones.
“They are allowed anywhere where houses are allowed currently, and we’ve had a lot of negative impacts on single-family neighborhoods,” Hales said.
There also is no clear policy on how large of a lot may have to be to host a vacation rental, Hales said.
That is a point that Iverson said he found frustrating, as he related an experience of encountering a large home in a cul-de-sac that was advertised by the owner to host up to 60 people at a time.
“I’m sorry, but if you’re advertising to 60 people to be able to stay, that’s a hotel. That’s not a home,” Iverson said.
Common complaints made by residents of neighborhoods where these rentals exist tend to consist of issues related to noise, trash and parking, as multiple cars may come with the vacationers.
In some cases, these types of rentals are “investment properties” brought by either local or out-of-towners who do not live in the neighborhoods in which their vacation rentals are located.
The ever-constant coming and going of visitors on a regular basis is also seen as disruptive in certain communities, Iverson said.
Competition between short-term rentals, hotels and motels in the area was also mentioned. Both Hales and Almquist said hoteliers have various health and safety regulations and taxes they have to observe and pay as a part of their business, and claimed vacation rentals in the county might not.
The owners of vacation rentals booked through services like VRBO and AirBnB are required to have insurance for those rentals and follow a list of safety protocols for both the owner/host and their guests, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to level the playing field,” Almquist said, adding that vacation rentals should be subject to the same health and safety regulations and taxes as hotels.
Short-term vacation rentals have been seen as an inexpensive alternative to staying in hotels while traveling.
The increase in vacation rentals across the county is also seen as one of the reasons for the increasing-price of housing, Hales said.
Instead of renting long term to a student, young family or perhaps a single adult trying to establish him or herself, property owners are finding it more lucrative to host short-term renters. This limits the homes otherwise unavailable for rent and adds to the squeeze on affordable housing, she said.
While the not-so-positive impacts of short-term rentals as outlined by Hales and the commissioners were the primary topic of discussion as to why a six-month pause on new vacation homes was needed; all three repeatedly noted that property owners have a right to do with their property how they see fit.
In the case of short-term rentals and where they may pop up, however, the rights of the preexisting property owners also need to be considered and weighed accordingly.
Nevertheless, county officials still need to address the “burgeoning and popular” trend of vacation homes that has caught the county off-guard and put it in need of policy revisions, Hales said.
“What we’re looking for is a pause button on all new applications,” she said. “We’re only asking for a six-month pause so we can get the policies right and get them drafted properly.”
Whatever form the new policy takes remains to be seen. In cities like St. George and Washington, there are areas set aside for vacation home development and special overlays that allow for it.
While the larger, 60-person vacation rentals won no favor from Iverson, he also said he had little issue with homeowners who may rent out a part of their home and garner little notice from their neighbors.
“Some rentals have no impacts on others,” Hales said.
Almquist and Iverson voted to pass the resolution putting a six-month moratorium on new applications. Commissioner Dean Cox, the third member of the commission, was absent while tending to county business elsewhere, Almquist said.
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