Buccino recusal raises the question of whether second-home owners should have a voice in short-term rental debate

Steamboat Springs City Council member Michael Buccino checks out the first set of election results released on election night, November 2021, at the Routt County Courthouse.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

The forced recusal this week of Steamboat Springs City Council member Michael Buccino from the discussion on short-term rental policy highlights concerns held by a key stakeholder in the debate, and specifically the question of whether they deserve a voice.

That demographic consists of the upper-middle-class second homeowner who spends a few weeks or months a year in Steamboat — many of whom plan to retire full-time in the city, and, until then, want to continue to rent their home, unrestricted, on a nightly basis.

Many who fit that description have been vocal in contacting council members, representing a group who pay property taxes and feel vested in the community, even though, as non-primary residents, they don’t have a vote to cast on city ballots.

“It’s a challenge when you have 14,000 people who live in Steamboat, and let’s say 4,000 people voted, and regardless how they voted and who they voted for,” Buccino said. “But there’s also 48% of the properties who are not represented at all. They are second homeowners and they don’t have any say in the matter.”

They argue that it is better to have people in the units rather than for them to be “dark” for a large portion of the year.

A large area, primarily concentrated around the resort, at this time doesn’t appear to be vulnerable to plans to implement restrictions on short-term rentals. However, even there, the city is considering requiring all units register for a license, paying fees and potentially a new tax, and operate under a stricter system of enforcement, through which their license could potentially be revoked for repeated violations.

But it’s in the areas where short-term rentals will be allowed but capped or restricted in other ways in which there will likely be the most conflict. Additionally affected property owners are those stymied by the moratorium on new vacation home rental permits that was extended until June 30.

Steamboat city council members have repeatedly circled back to the fundamental question: What are we trying to accomplish?

The primary stated goals throughout have been maintaining workforce and affordable housing and neighborhood character.

Full-time residents and property owners also made their voices heard in the written public comments — describing the noise and commotion caused by the condominium above turned over every few nights to large and loud groups of visitors.

Steamboat resident Bonnie Bell argued that a for-profit short-term rental is a commercial enterprise and should be treated as such. Commercial property is assessed at a much higher rate than residential property, meaning owners pay significantly more in property taxes.

“The rampant conversion of long-term housing stock into nightly rentals is gutting our community,” Bell said. “It creates a new floor for living in Steamboat that people with local jobs can no longer afford. It removes the ability of young people to stay where they grew up. It hollows out our neighborhoods and makes it a one-generation town. Just like we have zoning ordinances that prohibit certain activities in certain areas, the nightly rentals need to be more restricted in order to keep Steamboat the town as a town.”

Buccino’s Jan. 4 comments regarding these non-resident property owners led to the council’s vote to force his recusal from the short-term rental policy work session on March 8.

“What I’m bringing is my experience of the property owners and the second homeowners who are paying taxes and things that come from their lodging,” Buccino said at the Jan. 4 council meeting. “I’m trying to be a voice for my clients that are property owners and second homeowners in this town.”

Buccino, who has an interior design business, later emphasized that he was receiving no financial incentive and was simply trying to bring in that perspective.

Buccino began the council’s March 8 work session with an apology about what he called a misunderstanding.

“When I spoke there Jan. 4, it was a poor choice of words. I used the wrong words — in who I was quote unquote, ‘trying to represent,'” he said.

Buccino said he was trying to bring his 26 years of experience to the table, and was not trying to represent any single group.

However, he then went into a lengthy explanation, again defending the voice of non-resident property owners, and ended up doing very little to convince the majority his fellow council members that there was not, at least, the perception of a conflict of interest.

Buccino said his business is not impacted by whether or not those people turn their properties in short-term rentals, but he was, nevertheless, concerned about that group’s interests.

“Do you really understand demographic?” he asked his fellow council members. “They are not voters. But they are property owners — people who own property in Steamboat. And I have an affinity for everyone who owns property in Steamboat. Not just the people who vote.”

After those comments, Buccino actually lost the support of one of the two council members — Robin Crossan — who had previously voted for him to remain engaged in the conversation.

The only member to continue express support for Buccino staying was council member Ed Briones.

While all council members said they fully believed Buccino was not motivated by any financial incentive, they expressed concern about public trust and the perception of a conflict.

Buccino maintained he did not understand where there was a conflict, or even a perceived conflict.

“Saying you want to be a voice for second homeowners and that perspective — and I understand that — but for me, and the perception, I feel, by you stating that, saying that you don’t want to represent one population — but you do — that’s conflicting,” said council member Dakotah McGinlay.

Buccino said he is “for” the whole city and his neighborhood, but he said believes the issue needs to be looked at holistically.

“I do believe you have the best interest of the entire community at heart,” Crossan said to Buccino before he left the room. “But if you had come in here today and said, ‘I was elected to represent this community and the people that vote in this community,’ I would agree and say you need to stay. I do believe in my heart you will be fair, but it’s the perceived notion and what you said tonight.”

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