Board splits decision on short-term rental regs

March 10, 2017

The Flathead County Planning Board on Wednesday came to an impasse about whether to regulate short-term rental housing, voting 4-4 on a proposed zoning amendment.

With board member Greg Stevens absent, there was no way to break the tie. The board will forward the zoning text amendment to the county commissioners without a recommendation.

The Northwest Montana Association of Realtors asked for the zoning text amendment, which would allow short-term rentals as an administrative conditional use in the Ashley Lake, Labrant/Lindsey Lane, Lakeside, Little Bitterroot Lake, Rogers Lake and West Valley neighborhoods.

Currently, operating a rental unit for less than 30 days is an illegal use in zoned areas of the county. Nevertheless, there are dozens of short-term, or vacation rentals operating throughout the county.

The Planning Board held a public hearing on the proposed zoning amendment last month, then tabled the matter for more discussion and a decision. Public testimony included both supporters and opponents of the plan to regulate short-term rentals.

Planning Director Mark Mussman said the board discussed the proposal for about an hour at its meeting on Wednesday. In the end, board members supporting a favorable recommendation of the zoning amendment included Jeff Larsen, Kevin Lake, Sandy Nogal and Dean Sirucek. Opponents were Jim Heim, Rita Hall, Ron Schlegel and Mike Horn.

Board chairman Jeff Larsen said afterward he sees both sides of the issue, but supported a recommendation in favor of the zoning text amendment because he feels the county regulations would better protect the health and safety of neighbors. Without any oversight, short-term rental owners can run the risk of overloading individual septic systems to the point where they fail.

Larsen said he once had a bad experience with a vacation rental, with about 40 people sleeping at a dwelling next door, even sprawling out onto the porch.

“They were good people, but that’s the terrorizing of neighbors,” he said.

Schlegel said on Thursday he voted against the proposal because he believes the additional county regulations are redundant with what the state already requires.

“I’m trying to look out for the taxpayers,” Schlegel said. “The county would be duplicating [regulations and some fees] and I didn’t think it was right these [short-term rental owners] should have to pay twice for the same service.”

Larsen said he feels the proposed performance standards offered “some pretty good rules,” and said leaving oversight solely to the state seems ineffective.

“The state is not here to enforce,” Larsen said. “They just don’t have enough people, and I don’t think the rules are the same. With planning issues and accommodations, where do you go if you defer to the state form, if you can’t enforce those rules?”

Mussman said discussions he had with board members after the meeting indicated at least two board members who voted against the zoning text amendment opposed the level of additional regulations.

The proposed zoning amendment includes a number of performance standards for short-term rentals regarding parking, numbers of guests per sleeping area and other regulations.

If the county imposes regulations for short-term rentals, it would come with fees of about 325 for the application process, which includes obtaining a certified property owner list to notify neighbors within 150 feet.

The county commissioners will hold a public hearing and consider the issue in about six weeks.

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