Routt County turns up heat on illegal short-term rentals
Commissioners lobbying for legislation forcing better platform transparency
On their Airbnb listings, vacation rentals in the Tree Haus neighborhood advertise impeccable views of the mountains around Steamboat Springs.
Two of these listings are operated by iTrip Vacations Steamboat Springs, a company that rents out 105 properties in and around the city. It’s part of a larger network that advertises vacation properties in many other Colorado resort towns and across the country.
But the two Tree Haus properties are different than the hundreds of short-term rentals flanking the slopes of Mt. Werner on the other side of U.S. Highway 40. Tree Haus is in unincorporated Routt County, where short-term rentals are not allowed.
“We do not do short-term rentals in those units,” said Jason Loeb, who owns and manages iTrip Vacations Steamboat Springs. “We do one rental a month, every 30 days, and that is in complete compliance with the county and the owner, and both confirmed that.”
Loeb said a handful of iTrip’s local properties are rented like this — some of them due to the city’s moratorium on vacation home rental permits, which was extended to June 30 in last month.
A short-term rental is defined in Routt County as any property that is rented for less than one month. Apart from a bed and breakfast or guest ranch permit, stays less than one month are not allowed in unincorporated parts of the county.
Still, county officials estimate there are as many as 200 unlawful short-term rentals across the county, many well beyond Steamboat’s city limits.
Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who has been vocal on the issue, said he disagrees with Loeb’s interpretation of the county’s rules but added it would be difficult for the county to take any action.
Because short-term rentals are prohibited across the board, there isn’t a system for policing them other than in court, and a screenshot of an Airbnb advertisement isn’t considered evidence.
Any court action would likely require neighbors or county personnel to gather evidence and testify, Corrigan said.
As a result, commissioners have approved hiring a code compliance officer, and the position was posted earlier this month. County Manager Jay Harrington said the position will be shared between the building and planning departments, and part of the role will be addressing short-term rentals.
“A lot of the goal of that is more to promote voluntary compliance with our regulations,” Corrigan said. “Sometimes people don’t even know that there are violations of zoning regulations.”
Routt County Planning Director Kristy Winser said the new position will help move short-term rentals from a complaint driven process to one that is more proactive. Currently, each department handles its own code enforcement. The position is one the planning department has been asking for for a long time, she said.
“To have somebody who can be out in the county, driving around or be able to respond more promptly to complaints when we get them is something that is going to be a big change for us,” Winser said.
In various community presentations, Winser has been asking residents how the county should regulate short-term rentals moving forward, as the county works to create a new master plan. Residents have overwhelmingly said they don’t want short-term rentals to be allowed.
“People want to continue to not permit short-term rentals and to strengthen our enforcement of them,” Winser said, adding that about 87% of participants in these meetings felt this way.
Working with platforms
Rather than policing short-term rentals on the back end, Corrigan said the county is starting conversations with the rental platform Airbnb next week to see how the company can help enforce local regulations.
“The handwriting is on the wall — there is going to be a movement, both at the state and local levels, to really reign in some of this activity,” Corrigan said. “I think (officials at Airbnb) realize it is really in their local interest to start working with local communities.”
Harrington drew a comparison to when short-term rentals were newer and Airbnb was the first platform to work with local governments to collect and remit local sales and accommodation taxes. That didn’t happen until there was external pressure, he said.
In Corrigan’s ideal scenario, Airbnb would remove advertisements for short-term rentals within unincorporated parts of the county. Another option could be a notice to potential renters that the property is not legally allowed to be rented short term on the advertisement.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t have any authority over their operations at all, so let’s talk with them,” Corrigan said.
There are also several ongoing efforts at the state Capitol related to short-term rentals. One would reclassify certain short-term rentals as commercial properties and then tax them as such, a measure that could raise millions of dollars for taxing districts in Routt County each year.
A report from the state’s Task Force Concerning Tax Policy submitted to the Legislature earlier this month estimated these taxing changes would lead to an additional $27 million in property taxes collected by the Summit County School District.
Corrigan said that bill likely isn’t going anywhere this session, but he is pushing for other legislation that is being discussed currently that would require platforms to share information about who is renting out properties.
The platform transparency minded measure — which Corrigan said hasn’t been drafted yet — would require all of the rental platforms to submit information to the state. Then a centralized database of these rentals could help local governments get a better handle on issue.
“That’s kind of the first step,” he said. “We can’t really talk about equalizing property taxes or ensuring lodging or excise taxes or enforcing our zoning regulations until we actually know what’s going on out there.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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On Wednesday 300 volunteers on 41 teams took on more than 37 projects across the county, making this year’s Routt County United Way Day of Caring the biggest in its 25-year history.