Emotions run high over vacation rental vote

Jason Ferguson

By a 3-2 vote at Monday evening’s meeting, the Custer City Council approved the second reading of an amendment to its ordinance that deals with permitted conditional uses and prohibited uses and structures within a residential district by making boarding houses and short term rentals a prohibited use in said residential areas. The ordinance change does not affect areas zoned commercial, nor does it eliminate already-established short-term rentals. Those that already exist will be grandfathered in with the existing conditional use permit. However, that permit is not transferable, and if the property is sold, the permit goes away. At the previous meeting of the council the move was explained as a way to combat a lack of housing in Custer, as well as the fact there are already many vacation rentals in town (there are approximately 27 in town but many more in the county).
People in attendance at Monday’s meeting spoke both in favor of and against the amendment. Among those who spoke against the amendment was Faith Lewis, a local realtor who owns a vacation rental management business and also owns a home within city limits.
Lewis said personal freedoms and home ownership rights are “very sacred,” and said anything that is going to come down the pipe that is going to take away personal freedoms needs to be taken very seriously and investigated very seriously.
“We need to see facts, not just feelings and emotions,” she said.
Lewis argued against many of the points generally made by those who oppose vacation rentals, saying those who rent have to apply and agree to rules, that vacation homes are generally better kept than regular homes and they do not increase traffic as much as an in-home business or hair salon. She also said regardless of whether someone next door is a permanent neighbor or a vacation renter, city ordinances should take care of any issues that arise.
“I don’t care who is next to my house, if they are being disrespectful and rude, they get called on. I don’t care if they are an owner or a guest. That’s where the responsibility lies,” she said. “If the ordinances aren’t strong enough then we need to work on that side of it, not take away people’s personal freedoms.”
Lewis said capitalism would decide when there were too many vacation rentals in town, as if there were truly too many some wouldn’t rent, and the owner would be forced to decide what to do with the home whether it was renting it on a long-term basis or selling it.
“Vacation home renters spend money in the community. They shop, they get gas, they get food. They will just find another place to stay,” she said. “This is so against everything our chamber does to bring people here. It makes no sense.”
Lewis added she agreed there is a lack of housing in Custer, saying she has an apartment house that “has a list a mile long” every time it has availability. But, she said, the city needs to address that lack of housing directly, not through limiting people’s property rights.
“You can’t force someone who can get $25,000 to $30,000 a year for a vacation rental and (who) gets to enjoy the home they bought to rent it out long-term when they will get $10,000 to $14,000 for the year and won’t get to enjoy it or enjoy the community,” she said. “We have to deal with the problems at hand and not take away people’s rights.”
Others who spoke, many of whom were also realtors, touched on the fact that many people who buy vacation rentals use it to visit and stay in Custer when they have the chance and rent it out the rest of the time to help pay the mortgage. They added that many of the people who buy the homes do so with the intent of moving to Custer in their retirement years.
“It’s easier to get a loan when you have a full-time income,” said Andrea Ronning, owner of Aspen + Pine Realty. “So many of them purchase the property and use it for two to three years as vacation rental to achieve a long term goal. They eventually will be here full time.”
Lori Svoboda of Western Skies Realty questioned if affordable housing actually existed anymore, saying a lack of affordable housing is not an issue unique to Custer.
“When has it been up to the city to provide affordable housing? This is a problem we are having across the U.S.,” she said. “We are a mountain town and have been discovered. It is what it is. It’s inflation and everything else. You can’t just blame vacation rentals.”
Still others questioned the validity of the reported myriad issues permanent residents have with vacation rental occupants, with all of them saying they have never had an issue with any of the people renting their homes.
“I just don’t understand, (is it) because you see a different color car in the driveway?” asked Roberta Duncan, who also spoke against the amended ordinance.
Raphael Murrillo, who spoke at the previous meeting, again repeated his request to see the ordinance amended again before the second passage so that hosted rentals—ones where there is a homeowner on site—are allowed.
“A hosted rental doesn’t have the problem of the abuses that sometimes occur. Unhosted rentals could have trash everywhere and make a lot of noise,” he said. “If someone is living there full-time they can clamp down on that.”
He called the possible modification a solution that respects property rights, allows people to make a little money and also doesn’t feed into the problem of having expensive properties that are vacant most of the year.
Among those in favor of the amended ordinance was Carmen Calauitti, who came to Custer from California and said she has seen towns ruined under an avalanche of vacation rentals. She said her son lives in a 400 square-foot rental for $1,500 a month because there is nowhere to live.
“There are no places for kids to live. If you want to keep your kids here, if you want to have a community, you have to put a halt on the VRBO business,” she said, adding it gets tiresome explaining to VRBO renters where they are allowed to be and where property lines are.
“I don’t want to have to police people,” she said.
John Carson, a long time city resident, spoke in favor of the amended ordinance, saying lost in all the property rights discussion is the rights of an established homeowner to have peace and quiet at their home.
“I think if you allow VRBOs to continue it takes away from the property rights of the existing owners,” he said. “The people who purchased this house in a residential neighborhood with the intention of having a quiet family abode to raise their kids.”
He added those who want to own or build vacation rentals can still do so in areas that are zoned as commercial, as well as in the county, as the county does not have any regulations on VRBOs, nor does it have any zoning.
Alderwoman Peg Ryan, who voted in favor of the amended ordinance, said she looked at it as a moratorium, not an outright ban on future VRBOs.
“I have heard from my constituents that (VRBOs) are a problem,” she said. “We know we have trouble hiring teachers, staff in the city, staff in the county, because people can’t find a place to live here. Nothing is forever.”
If the council discovers the hold on new VRBOs does nothing to stop the housing issue, it can change the ordinance back, she said.
“We’ll never know for sure if this is part of the problem unless we stop it,” she said.
Alderwomen Julie Jenniges, Jeannie Fischer and Ryan voted in favor of the amended ordinance, while Todd Pechota and Dixie Whittaker voted against the ordinance. Alderwoman Nina Nielsen, who cast the lone vote against the first reading of the ordinance back in May, was not present to vote at the June 6 meeting, something that was not lost on those in attendance.
“Are you going to be ready to put all the other ordnances you have in effect? Because this is going to raise a lot of issues and problems,” one in the audience said after the vote. "And what about Nina Nielsen? It would have failed with her here. I think this is a major conflict of interest.”
“She’s not here,” Mayor Bob Brown said.
“There are a lot of realtors and property developers here (against the amended ordinance),” a man said from the back of the room, which was met with a din of rebuttals from many in the audience. Brown eventually called order and moved the meeting to the next topic.
The amended ordinance will take effect 20 days after it is published in this newspaper.
A vote in the future, however, is likely.
“Let’s go get the signatures right now,” someone said as the group left, hinting at a referendum on the issue.
Running a VRBO as a prohibited use in a residentially zoned area is a Class 2 misdemeanor.


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