Board rejects Bigfork vacation rental request

November 11, 2017

A Bigfork couple’s request for conditional-use permits to operate two vacation rentals has been unanimously rejected Tuesday by the Flathead County Board of Adjustment.

Bill and Alana Myers had asked for permission to operate short-term rentals in two cabins at their Ten Arrows Ranch off McCaffery Road. It was their latest attempt to find a way to use their property for a commercial purpose. All of their efforts have been met with opposition from neighbors.

The couple had a commercial wedding facility that was shut down four years ago because of a zoning violation after neighbors complained about noise, traffic, dust and general intrusion.

In 2014 Alana Myers pleaded guilty in Justice Court to a criminal misdemeanor for violating county zoning laws. Even though the couple had agreed to no longer accept payment for the use of their facility, she continued to hold weddings throughout a 30-day notice to desist, and through a subsequent reminder period. By then the 2013 summer wedding season was over.

The Myerses twice tried a different route to be able to use their facility for weddings, applying for a permit to establish a high-impact recreational facility and caretaker facility at their ranch. Those applications were pulled amid more neighborhood opposition.

The couple was renting their cabins as short-term rentals through Airbnb, with an advertisement that said “if guests rent both log homes and bunkhouse for a week minimum they may use our huge and awesome barn with wood floor for family reunions and other celebrations ...for an extra fee of $30/night, we would allow a self-contained RV.”

On Aug. 28 county officials informed them that renting the bunkhouse, hosting events and allowing RV rentals onsite is not permitted, and they stopped the rentals.

“We did jump the gun by advertising short-term rentals, but of our own accord we shut down our rentals when we realized the process was going to take longer than we thought,” Bill Myers said during a public hearing before the Board of Adjustment.

“We have made mistakes in the past that we’ve owned up to, and we apologize for those mistakes,” he said.

Myers told the board that while they “are taking the right step to be legal,” the county Planning Office had indicated to him that there are more than 100 unpermitted short-term rental facilities in operation. Only eight have secured the required administrative conditional-use permit that was put in place by the county commissioners earlier this year.

Neighbors claimed the Myerses were using the short-term rentals on their property as a back door to be able to host weddings and other large events at their ranch. Bill Myers strongly objected to that assertion.

Kalispell attorney Ken Kalvig, representing neighboring property owner Lance Morgan, maintained the site plans in the applications were incomplete. He told the board the problem with taking the Myerses’ applications at face value is that they told planning authorities they were going to use their property one way, then “told the public something else.”

Kalvig said they have violated county regulations so many times “they cannot be believed.

“When the Myers have been caught and told to get in line, they do for a while, but then they break or attempt to break the rules again,” Kalvig said.

He pointed to Alana Myers’ sentence in October 2014 after she pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor for violating zoning laws. She was given a 12-month deferred sentence on the condition that she not conduct commercial events without a permit during that time. Yet in November 2015, Kalvig said, “the Myers were advertising once again on Airbnb for use of their property for weddings.

“It’s a great example of how they get caught, say they’ll follow the rules and then slip back” into activity that violates zoning laws, he added.

“The Board of Adjustment would set a terrible precedent in accepting an insufficient application tainted from the moment it was filed, from people who have showed no inclination to follow the rules,” Kalvig said.

Even if the board were to put more stringent conditions on a conditional-use permit, “they’ll find a way around it,” he said, “and that puts the neighbors in the position of being watchdogs.”

A majority of board deemed the permit applications incomplete.

“I don’t feel all the conditional-use criteria was met,” board member Roger Noble said.

Cal Dyck, acting board chairman in absence of Mark Hash, said the board’s responsibility is to look at both sides. Beyond meeting all the permit criteria, there’s also the matter of getting along with one’s neighbors, he said.

“It would behoove the applicants to spend time to repair relationships and build trust with their neighbors,” Dyck said. “The neighborhood does not have the trust at this time.”

Board member Gina Klempel said the couple’s actions have been “a slap in the face” of both county officials and the neighbors.

Board member Ole Netteberg said after-the-fact applications are an irritation to him, though “on face value I see nothing wrong with this application.

“It’s all this other gray matter,” Netteberg said.

While he voted to deny the applications, he did so only after a long pause while he contemplated his vote.

Board of Adjustment decisions are final.

The Myeres could still apply for a conditional-use permit to establish a high-impact recreational facility and caretaker facility at their ranch. That’s a use that is allowed under the suburban agricultural zoning on their property. Bill Myers did not indicate what their future plans for the property will be.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.