Council OKs short term rental ordinance after contentious public meeting 

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The overflow crowd in Colorado Springs City Council chambers on Oct. 23 represented one side or the other of a widening chasm. At issue: the future of the city’s neighborhoods.

On one side was a passionate group of concerned neighbors opposing a city ordinance to usher in limitless short-term rentals (often called STRs, but better known by the sites that list them like Airbnb or VRBO). On the other side, was a larger throng of supporters, hoisting printed signs and cheering for former Colorado House Majority Leader Amy Stephens when she spoke on behalf of their Short Term Rental Alliance.

During their turn at the dais, supporters emphasized the sacredness of property rights and privacy, spoke of the good their fixed-up homes did for property values and the economy, and mentioned the opportunities STRs provided to meet new and interesting people. But above all, it seemed, they talked about the future, a sharing economy, a millennial business model — and about how all that could be strangled by a bunch of old fogies who still see the world as it was decades ago.

Ahem, City Council.

Brandon Behr, a prominent supporter and broker associate at Behr & Behr, told Councilor Tom Strand that when he had spoken to him in the past he viewed Strand as “a mentor or a parent” — which Strand didn’t seem to necessarily take as a compliment — and he hoped that his feelings wouldn’t be shattered by a “no” vote.

“What the Planning Commission put in front of you was great,” he said. “Why don’t you just stamp that and we’ll be out of here.”

Actually, on Aug. 16, the Planning Commission split evenly on the ordinance, and thus offered Council no recommendation.

The proposed ordinance — which Council ultimately approved — limits the number of STRs per lawful dwelling unit and per property; bans STRs in trailers, tents and other mobile or temporary structures; requires that neighbors be given an emergency contact available 24/7; allows the city to shut down or suspend nuisance rentals; requires an annual $119 permit and the payment of applicable taxes (those who use sites other than Airbnb need a sales tax license); and sets forth a variety of other standards and rules meant to enhance safety and promote neighborhood tranquility. The fee will fund two new positions: a program manager and code enforcement officer. The ordinance goes into effect Dec. 31.

Opponents had hoped for significant changes to the proposed ordinance to shield neighborhoods from what they view as the disruptive influence of STRs. Most notably, they wanted Council to ban non-owner-occupied STRs — houses that just serve guests, with no residents. Homes without a resident have more problems like loud parties, they said, and they aren’t really homes; they’re businesses, and thus shouldn’t be allowed in neighborhoods.

Many opponents spoke to a perceived loss of safety with strangers a constant presence on their residential streets — and no one sure whether they are simply tourists or something more sinister.

The anti-crowd also hoped to cap the number of STRs in the city, at the very least temporarily, in order to control what they suspected would be exponential growth that would impact neighborhood character and drive up home prices for poor and middle-class families. (Indeed, in touristy cities, properties are often scooped up by investors drawn to the lucrative STR model.)
“This has never happened in our city,” Michael Applegate, head of the newly formed Neighborhood Preservation Alliance told Council. “This is a complete upending of our zoning laws and I think that should be really concerning.”

Another man told Council, “The only way you can really experience [an STR] is to have one next door and you eventually will have one in your neighborhood.”

The seemingly less-rehearsed opponents clashed with the slicker presentations from supporters, led by the fiery Stephens. The crowd whooped when Stephens chastised Council — and hinted an expensive lawsuit would be forthcoming — should the board make changes that she said would impede property rights (e.g., cap STRs at a certain number) or violate privacy protections (e.g., use third parties to come up with lists of STRs within the city, as the city has no idea where they’re located). Supporters also laughed along with Stephens when she mocked opponents of the measure, fake sobbing into the microphone and wringing her hands.

Prior to the meeting, the city had no regulations on STRs, though, like any business, they are required to pay taxes. The city began looking to regulate STRs a couple years ago, as many cities have done. But initially, the city suffered from false starts, as more and more people found out about the initiative and wanted to weigh in. Among them was the newly formed Short Term Rental Alliance, which has since swollen to over 350 members. The Alliance only found out about the proposal this spring, and the process was halted to include its input.

But by the time the Neighborhood Preservation Alliance formed in August after finding out about the initiative and seeking input, the ordinance was already heading to the Planning Commission. Thus, members of the fledgling group say they’ve had little opportunity to shape the law. Other neighborhood groups, however, including the Council of Neighbors and Organizations (CONO), were among the initial stakeholders.

Councilors split on the ordinance initially, with some wanting to amend it to add a cap on the number of STRs through June, to give more time to consider tweaks. Among them were a very vocal David Geislinger, along with Don Knight and Yolanda Avila.

Avila attempted to build a bridge between supporters and opponents, saying they were more alike than they thought, and that her concern wasn’t for local STR owners, but for out-of-town investors, who could swoop in and buy up properties in bulk, with no thought to the impacts on the community. “I don’t want people from different states and different countries to own [our city],” she said. “I want us to own it.”

But the other five councilors (Merv Bennett was absent) saw no reason for a cap or any control. “So what if someone comes in there and sees an opportunity?” Andy Pico commented. “It’s a free country.”

Ultimately, Council voted to approve the ordinance unanimously, along with a companion resolution.

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