Washington County bans unhosted short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated areas

ST. GEORGE — Unhosted short-term rental properties in the unincorporated parts of Washington County were banned Tuesday following the County Commission’s vote to amend county code.

Attendees at the Oct. 5 Washington County Commission meeting where the banning of unhosted short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated parts of the county was passed, St. George, Utah, Oct. 5, 2021 Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

The ban impacts short-term rental properties that are not owner-occupied and limits how much of a larger property may be used as a vacation rental depending on lot size and zoning. Getting a county-issued business license to run what commissioners have described as a commercial venture in the middle of a residential neighborhood also remains a requirement.

Despite the new restrictions, commissioners stress the county still allows short-term rentals – just not unhosted ones.

The amendment adopted Tuesday was one of two options presented to the County Commission. The second, known as Option 2, would have allowed for unhosted vacation rentals with some additional restrictions. This option was passed by the Washington County Planning Commission last week with a recommendation for the County Commission to adopt it. However, Option 1, which banned unhosted vacation rentals, won out among the commissioners.

Commissioner Victor Iverson reiterated following the meeting that vacation rentals are still permitted as long as they are owner-occupied.

“People who are on site take better care the property,” Iverson said, “and make sure we don’t have 60 people in there or have a tour bus taking up space or have a party going on all night.”

Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson was particularly vocal against unhosted vacation rentals due to the how disruptive some have become to residential neighborhoods while being used as “hotels,” St. George, Utah, Oct. 5, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

These issues stem from complaints sent in by county residents concerning short-term rentals in their neighborhoods – particularly properties found to be owned by out-of-area investors that also lacked onsite management.

Iverson took particular issue with what he described as large 15,000-square-foot homes “being turned into hotels” and hosting over 30 people in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

“I’m not really as concerned about the investor class,” he said. “I’m not concerned about people who want to come in and buy up half a dozen homes in Washington County who came here from Salt Lake or move in here from Vegas and drive up my rent 33% and cause hell in the neighborhood.”

The rental statistic Iverson quoted was shown moments before on a slide shared by Scott Messel, the county’s community development director. The slide references information from Granicus.com that stated the short-term vacation rental industry had grown 800% from 2011 to 2019. This is estimated to have caused an increase in long-term rental cost by more than 33.6%.

Iverson also said he hated the fact the county had to step in and deal with this issue because of a few bad actors. It was a sentiment shared by fellow Commissioners Gil Almquist and Adam Snow.

Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist speaks about the county’s short-term rental policy, St. George, Utah, Oct. 5, 2021 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I’m saddened we even have to take care of this,” Almquist said, adding he was also disappointed that some people didn’t appear to care about how their activities impacted others.

Almquist also went on to stress that the county still allows short-term rentals almost anywhere else. The amended code is also very lenient when compared to other counties that have banned vacation rentals outright, he said.

Despite the ban, there may yet be pathways for the county to allow unhosted rental properties in the future.

The commission passed an additional resolution for a study looking at the feasibility of allowing unhosted vacation rentals and their potential costs to the county, among other factors. Victoria Hales, assistant Washington County Attorney, said the following about the study after the meeting:

What we would like is to study the cost to the county of allowing unhosted short-term rentals and whether or not they cause more burdens on enforcement, community development … and consider whether or not we’d assess a fee in order to compensate the county for how much more it costs for enforcement, things like that.

The feasibility study is anticipated to take between three to four months to complete, Iverson said. Once the commission has the study in hand, they may find ways to allow unhosted vacation rentals to return.

“There’s an exception to every rule,” he said. “We’re not trying to be unreasonable here.”

Aside from a potential fee, the commissioners said specific zones set aside for short-term rentals – which has been done in St. George, Washington City and other municipalities – may also be a possibility on the county level in the future.

There are over 5,500 licensed short-term vacation rentals across the county, according to the county’s community development department. The number of unlicensed rentals, of which there are believed to be many, is unknown.

The vast majority of vacation rentals within Washington County are located inside the cities, and only an estimated 60-plus exist in the unincorporated parts of the county the commission oversees. Of those short-term rentals, approximately half are licensed.

Licensed vacation rentals, even those now out of compliance as of Tuesday, are grandfather in under the amended code passed by the commission.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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