Airbnb host challenges city’s short-term rental ordinance

ST. GEORGE – In December 2014, St. George resident Stephen Palmer started renting out the basement of his family’s home to travelers through an online, short-term vacation rental service called Airbnb. While the service provides travelers with an alternative to staying in a hotel, it can also brings them into residential areas not zoned for such a use. That brings Airbnb hosts like Palmer and others in conflict with current city code.

In May, the City of St. George sent Palmer a “courtesy notice” telling him he was in was in violation of city code for providing the short-term service. If he didn’t comply with the code, he could face fines and even a possible misdemeanor-level offense. Palmer said he’s not the only one who has received a notice from the city.

City notices sent to Stephen Palmer informing him he was in violation of the city's short-term rental ordinance, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2015 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News
City notices sent to Stephen Palmer informing him he was in violation of the city’s short-term rental ordinance, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2015 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“To my count, there are 51 Airbnb hosts in St. George, and everybody is starting to get these letters,” Palmer said.

St. George only allows short-term rentals in areas where zoning allows, and residential zones aren’t on the list of permitted uses.

“The reason for the short-term rental ordinance in the City of St. George is to protect the integrity of the single-family neighborhoods within our community,” Marc Mortensen, assistant to the city manager of St. George, said.

The city does allow for short-term rentals throughout the community where it is deemed appropriate, Mortensen said.

Concerns against short-term rentals arise over potentially negative impact visitors could have on a residential neighborhood. Concerns over how many people occupy a vacation home, plus the excess noise, traffic, trash and other potential nuisances, as well as impacts on property values, are commonplace when the subject is brought up.

“If you do any research at all, the phrase that you’ll hear is ‘party house,’” Palmer said. “That bothers people.”

Palmer characterized the so-called party houses as properties where the property owner lives outside of the area and basically allows a large group of guests free rein of the home. These kind of situations are the ones that generally trigger complaints against short-term rentals, Palmer said, adding he wouldn’t want to live next to a party house either.

In contrast to the out-of-town homeowner, Palmer said, he and others live in the homes they are choosing to rent out, meaning they’re invested in making sure everything runs smoothly.

“In every instant they can ever bring up … there’s not (an) owner in the home,” Palmer said. “There’s not a single complaint you will find of owner-occupied situations.”

He also said: “It’s very, very simple: any possible concerns you could ever raise on this issue, I have that same concern way more than you do because I live in the house. … I share those concerns times 10.”

None of his neighbors complained about his being an Airbnb host, Palmer said, mainly because none of them even knew he was doing it.

Even St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who lives two doors down from Palmer, had no idea Palmer was renting out his basement to travelers.

Pike said the only thing he noticed was a recurrence of cars at Palmer’s home with out-of-state license plates.

I didn’t otherwise know anything was going on,” Pike said, “and that’s instructive.”

St. George officials only became aware of Palmer’s situation because a code enforcement officer who was looking into a complaint related to a different property online stumbled across the Palmers’ online Airbnb profile.

Around 40-50 people have stayed in Palmer’s 1,500-square foot, two-bedroom basement since December, at a cost of $70-$100 a night. This produces an average of around $1,000 a month for the Palmer family.

If he has to stop being an Airbnb host, Palmer said his family budget will be able to readjust accordingly, and it wouldn’t be a big deal in the long run. However, what about people on fixed incomes who use Airbnb for extra money? Having to stop hosting would likely be a big deal to them, he said.

Homeowner and Airbnb host Stephen Palmer says he should be able to host travelers in his home and is engaged in discussion with city officials in an attempt to change city code that currently disallows short-term rentals in residential areas, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2015 | Photo by St. George News
Homeowner and Airbnb host Stephen Palmer says he should be able to host travelers in his home and is engaged in discussion with city officials in an attempt to change city code that currently disallows short-term rentals in residential areas, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2015 | Photo by St. George News

For the time being however, the city won’t be enforcing the short-term rental ordinance while city officials discuss what to do about it.

“I think that’s fair, given there are questions,” Pike said.

Though he may be at odds with a part of the city code, Palmer said he isn’t fighting the city over the matter, but rather discussing it with the mayor and others. He hopes the discussion will lead to the council’s changing the standing ordinance.

In a City Council work meeting set for July 9, Palmer and others will be able to address the City Council about the city’s short-term rental ordinance.

If the council decides to make changes to the ordinance, those proposed changes then will be put up for public comment and ultimately voted on.

Items of the discussion Pike said will be addressed will include out-of-town homeowners and owner-occupied short-term rentals.

There’s a difference there obviously, and that should weigh (in) a little bit,” Pike said, adding the council will also discuss under what conditions short-term rentals should or shouldn’t be allowed. Potential affects on the neighborhoods in general will also be considered.

There is also the element of competition, Pike said. For now, Airbnb hosts and those who engage in similar services in St. George don’t have businesses licenses or pay the room taxes required of bed and breakfast businesses and hotels.

“I would be happy to get a business license and pay taxes, but (the current ordinance doesn’t) allow me to,” Palmer said. “Of course I want to play by the same rules – I just can’t.”

Related posts

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

 

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!

51 Comments

  • izzymuse June 16, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    “Concerns against short-term rentals arise over potentially negative impact visitors could have on a residential neighborhood. Concerns over how many people occupy a vacation home, plus the excess noise, traffic, trash and other potential nuisances, as well as impacts on property values, are commonplace when the subject is brought up.” My neighbors do all that crap, and they’re renters. The rental ordinance is assuming short term renters are worse than long term renters? Based on what research? I managed property for years and found that some renters are great and some are a nightmare. Seems like more needless regulations from local government.

    • 42214 June 16, 2015 at 10:27 pm

      You found from all your experience that some renters are good and some are nightmares? What a profound contribution that is.

      • izzymuse June 17, 2015 at 11:16 am

        Well, yes, obviously, but do you see my point: why have city ordinances differentiating the difference between “short term renters” versus “long term renters”? The city seems to be assuming that one is always going to be preferred over another. Do you see what I mean? There’s good and bad for both.etc.

        • 42214 June 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm

          The reason for differentiating is the simple fact that they are different. Long term renters establish roots, normal routines of coming and going, etc. Short term renters in this case are tourists which by their very nature are more active and create more disruption in the neighborhood. These are generalizations but the problem comes when you single out either extreme example and base your position around that. It was established in the last go around that Mr Palmer avoids taxes, safety regulations and all other restrictions that his competitors deal with. Let him compete on a level field and comply with city laws starting with business zoning. If he can’t comply there is a reason for it. No pity on a guy that operates outside the law, gets caught and now whines that he can’t comply because his property isn’t zoned properly.

  • Simone June 16, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Sounds to me like this guy wants to run a hotel, which is a business, out of his basement and not have to play by the same rules as everyone else who chooses to run a business does.

    • amagi June 17, 2015 at 2:03 am

      Simone, Stephen Palmer here. Did you read the last paragraph?

      • Simone June 17, 2015 at 10:29 am

        Of course I read it and I support you in this matter Stephen. I hope the city grants you your business license ASAP. Am I correct in assuming that you read the ordinances prior to opening your business? If so, why did you wait until after you were caught to try and change the ordinance?

        • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 2:23 pm

          Good point, Simone. The Airbnb folks make it very clear on their website that those who want to host should check all local ordinances and zoning regs before going ahead. Mr. Palmer seems to have decided that he’d just skip this step or was arrogant enough to think it didn’t apply to him or didn’t read the Airbnb guidelines (same thing)…His “business” is contributing nothing to the city with taxes, etc. which regular hotel/motel owners do. Perhaps he should look for a legal way to earn some extra cash.

          • Brian June 17, 2015 at 3:16 pm

            Of course it contributes to the city, because it brings Airbnb people here who would otherwise just look for some other locality near Zion’s, etc that did allow have Airbnb listings. And he spends that $1,000 a month in our local economy, or at large portion of it. The bottom line is the same though, regardless of this aspect of the argument: the current ordinance needs to be re-evaluated so everyone (long term renters, short term renters, hotels, etc) are playing on a similar playing field.

  • NotSoFast June 16, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    It,s all about who you know. Licence for what? Sales tax? Special favors for special friends, everywhere. (just speculating here)
    I wonder if the homeowner next to the drug rehab center on Sugar Leo in Blomington
    pays the required fees and sales tax when he rents out his place to golfer for a few rounds of golf for the weekend?

  • 42214 June 16, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    I hope the city stuffs the ordinance up Mr Palmers keyster and lights it on fire.

  • 42214 June 16, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    Mr Palmer was aware of the ordinance before he started his hotel. Airbnb actually advises these “landlords” to check CC&Rs, HOA Reg, city ordinances etc before engaging in this business model. Now he wants to change the rules. It’s like the guy that moves next to the airport and then complains about the noise.

  • CaliGirl June 17, 2015 at 7:31 am

    I remember when WCSD redrew the boundary line for Snow Canyon HS and all the “good” football players where slated to be sent to Dixie HS. The parents of these “good” players found homes west of 1400 W that would “rent” a room to those players and their parents so they could be in the boundary for Snow Canyon. Imagine the uproar that would have caused on the SGN website.

    So, if I want to let friends, family or acquaintances stay at my home and in return they buy me dinner, or leave a little gift, is that a violation? What about missionaries (not LDS) that are traveling through and need a comfortable place to stay; is that a violation?

    • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 2:26 pm

      Not likely. Hosting friends and family is not the same as renting space to strangers. And being treated to a dinner out is not the same as pocketing cold cash. Airbnb hosts advertise online. Do you advertise online for get your friends and family to visit you?

  • Lastdays June 17, 2015 at 7:33 am

    I charge rent to my older kids for living at home. Am I in violation ? Should I go turn my self in and just get it over with ? Too much regulation going on. Before we all know it, governments will be doing regular inspections at all of our homes to make sure we are in “compliance” Yea, laugh now, but it’s coming.

    • izzymuse June 17, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Exactly!

      • 42214 June 17, 2015 at 1:11 pm

        If you really feel that the city is going to come down on you for renting to your kids you’re a bigger fool that I thought you were.

    • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 2:27 pm

      Now you’re just doing your silly dance.

      • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 8:01 am

        ANYBODY HOME, Do you work for the city? You seem determined NOT to see the point of so many who simply want the ordinances and laws changed.

        • anybody home June 18, 2015 at 10:10 am

          Sorry, Iz…I don’t work for the city. I do see the point of those who want the ordinances and laws changed. I’m only pointing out that UNTIL those ordinances and laws are changed, citizens including Mr. Palmer are obliged to obey them. It’s not okay for an individual who doesn’t like the laws to simply ignore them or act as if they are personally above the law.

          For the record, I also believe that lawmakers and public officials do not have the right to exempt individuals from the laws — even if they’re friends or go to the same church.

          Too often people who are angriest and loudest about the laws are also the ones who want to break them. We used to call them criminals. If these laws in St. George need to be changed, start electing people who agree with you and can work to change them.

  • tcrider June 17, 2015 at 10:34 am

    This is so unfair to the neighbors that pay taxes in the neighborhood.
    And like I wrote before the city also needs to have these property owners justify there residency, I know of two property owners in Saint George that claim full time residency on their properties, and these people are never here and the homes are rented out.
    This is not fair to the neighbors that pay property taxes on what they thought was a residential neighborhood.
    It does not make a difference if its the basement or complete property being rented. Its a total disrespect to the community and especially the surrounding home owners.
    Its too bad the city can’t enforce its own rules and codes, and keep the renters in the neighborhoods where rental properties were designated in the first place.
    But the good old boy, (old family) mentality in the city along with certain developers (s&s) seem like they will do what ever they want, when ever they want anyways, and other peoples families do not really count as long as the (old family)gets their money first,(s&s)+(special int.;city level)=greed and corruption
    Bottom line, the rental problems are only the tip of the iceberg,

  • aloha June 17, 2015 at 11:08 am

    I live next to an Airbnb home so I’ve been watching this topic. I think Palmer offers a valid solution. If there is an on site manager most of the issues would be resolved. My concern is that there is no one on site by me and we have lots of kids in the neighborhood walking to and from school and just hanging out. It would be so easy for one of them to be lured into the home. It would be great if there was an onsite manager who is watching the place and takes responsibility for who’s coming into the home.

    • izzymuse June 17, 2015 at 11:19 am

      I see your point and concern, but do you not see this same problem with other “renters” or neighbors? I do. I see the problem being a parental issue, NOT. A local government concern. Does that make sense?

      • fun bag June 17, 2015 at 1:40 pm

        What makes sense is that izzy is just a simple boy, basically dumb 🙂

  • knobe June 17, 2015 at 11:30 am

    It is true that the Non – owner occupied can lead to headaches .
    The few adverse stories I’ve read from around the country ,
    Were the result of someone renting the entire home and party groups would book it for a free for all .
    I have used AirBnB in several states and never heard of problems when the owner resides on the property .
    There is little difference between that & people who take in roommates .
    If you outlaw owner – occupied airbnb , it is the Same as outlawing roommates .
    The Actual difference is roommates are there ALL the time ,
    While airbnb guests are only there for short stays .

    People complaining about interfering with the neighborhood then have to outlaw roommates , your in-laws moving in for months or anyone else .

    You can Not be hypocritical & tell someone else he can’t have over night guests but you allow people NOT on your lease or mortgage to stay over night at your place .

    • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Knobe, Airbnb users are NOT guests. They are customers. They find the places online and they pay to rent them. Your logic is way off when you compare these customers to personal guests. And every lease I’ve ever seen is very specific about adding a roommate or having non-resident guests for more than a couple of days. Not allowed unless the roommate goes through the same credit check, etc. that the tenant does. So outlawing Airbnb is definitely NOT the same as outlawing roommates. There are laws everywhere about this kind of thing to protect other residents of a building or a neighborhood. Folks in St. George just don’t get around as much as they could.
      But this is really an issue of a business that should be paying taxes and licensed in a non-business area. It’s not a semantic question, it’s a legal question.

  • sagemoon June 17, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    I’m with you, Knobe.

  • fun bag June 17, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    i’d be pissed if my idiot neighbors were running an overnight flop house for tourists. I wouldn’t let them get away with it. Very limited street parking on my block…

  • 42214 June 17, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    So now you open an airbnb without a business license or permit because your property isn’t zoned for such activity. Next you want to advertise with a sign. Then you realize that you can also put a sign on your property advertising a local business and make $500 a month on the side. Then you decide that you want a horse in your back yard. Now, which local ordinances do you chose to enforce and which ones don’t you? The classic “slippery Slope”.

  • amye June 17, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    Just as Mr. Palmer is discreet and professional in his rentals so is my Aunt. People who have a casita or nice room set up have a tendency to keep their home and yard nicer for presentation. There may be a difference in guests and their behavior in relation to the long term vacation rental and the couple of nights. She has a master bedroom / bath with it’s own entrance and she lives there. She will not have guests if she is not home. In addition to the importance of the financial gain I believe the community should consider the impact these guests have on our local economy. over 3million people will go through Zions National Park this year. Everyone who has stayed with her has been here to see the canyon and other local attractions. There are only so many hotels. The events that draw people here that we support as a community are the senior games, iron man, marathons, Tuachan, and of course the parks, lakes, and golf courses. When there are no rooms, people go to Cedar City or Mesquite and they get the financial benefits.

    If the ordinance is that it is a “single family dwelling” then more scrutiny needs to be paid to multi families in a household, roommates, and what about college students? Perhaps young adults should reconsider coming to St. George to go to Dixie State University because renting a room or a home for several students is against the law. I promise you there are more students than student housing.

    If the cities or county want to license, inspect and tax the business (home) that is fair. Airbnb is an amazing site that works very well for both the traveler and the host/hostess. I will attend all city meetings to support at least the renting of space in an owners home both long term and short term.

    • amye June 17, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      Airbnb also produces a 1099 for the members. It is not nontaxable income. Home property taxing from personal experience….you must have a Utah drivers license or your taxes nearly double because it is considered a second residence. I ran into this when I first moved here and did not know this. You cannot get a license for primary residence in more than one state when Utah is involved. This is a county regulation.

      • tcrider June 17, 2015 at 9:18 pm

        a married couple can claim for example, one house as primary residence at salt lake city and the other at saint george a primary residence, I know a married professional couple in saint george that have two very expensive properties, and they are each claiming one property as primary residences. Very easily done when the wife keeps her maiden name and this is very common for the washington county realty lawyers.
        Just think of the possibilities when you combine a washington county realty lawyer and and creative estate planning.
        This can also be done with multiple properties in different states.

    • anybody home June 17, 2015 at 7:15 pm

      Amye, I don’t think anybody commenting here is down on Airbnb as an organization. My experience is that it’s pretty well run. So you can stop telling us how nice your aunt is and how well she keeps up her property or the 1099s they send out. You’re missing the point.
      The point is that it’s not legal to operate a business in an area not zoned for business. And if the area IS zoned for business, an individual still needs a business license and is required to pay all taxes associated with that – this is not a 1099 issue which is about federal tax. This is an issue about local taxes. Following me so far?
      The question here – and Mr. Palmer’s problem – is he’s trying to get away with running a business in an area not zoned for business. And he doesn’t have a license because – he says – he can’t get one because the area is not zoned for business. This is one of those crazy arguments that have no logic. The point is that Mr. Palmer is not allowed to operate his Airbnb under current city laws.
      Now if those laws are wrong or if enough people want to get them changed, that’s fine. But where laws exist, they are laws. The law says we drive on the right side of the road in the U.S.and in every town and county in the country. If somebody wants to drive on the left side of the road, there’s going to be a problem.
      Laws may not be perfect, but they keep the playing field as level as it can be and we are lucky to be able to change laws when enough citizens agree with the change.
      Mr. Palmer should just be a better citizen. And, I might add, a better example to all the students coming to Dixie State. Heaven knows, young people need good examples of integrity. Mr. Palmer is seriously lacking in that.

      • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 7:54 am

        We’re not endorsing lawbreaking. The point is the city laws need to be changed. Read the zoning regulations and see how much nonsense most of them are. We know the laws. That’s the point. Some laws need to be changed entirely. Just because it’s a law doesn’t mean it’s good or sensible. Try running a business. You’ll quickly see that there is too much needless regulation. The solution is NOT getting more government regulation and stricter tax policies. The overall point: we the people are NOT here to meet. The needs of the government. The government is here to meet the needs of the people.

        • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 9:49 am

          So what’s your plan to change things for the good? I wish you well because there are way too many laws. I just think you pick the wrong ones to complain about. Again, what’s your plan?

          • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 11:08 am

            My plan would be to 1. Simplify and decrease government interventions (increase opportunities for businesses to improve the economy in St. George and Southern Utah area), 2. Allow zoning flexibility which would allow members of our community to also increase economy for other local businesses (restaurants, shops, etc.), 3. Stop punishing community members who are NOT bothering, hurting their neighbors or neighborhood!, 4. Make city zoning changes which would allow creative business opportunities to the area! That’s just a few to start! Thanks for asking. ?

          • fun bag June 18, 2015 at 11:31 am

            LOL iz, ur just so dumb tho… how u gonna do all that? 😀

          • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 11:55 am

            I’m glad I ask too cause you didn’t say squat. You sound like Trump yesterday that answered a question about his plan to replace Obamacare and all he did was talk in general terms about what was wrong with it. 1- I’d simplify and decrease gov’t interventions. Does that mean make in easier to ignore zoning laws. Zoning flexibility means R-1 doesn’t really mean R-1 if you don’t like it. 3- Don’t punish violators that are breaking the law descretely. 4- Make zoning changes which really means again, R-1 doesn’t mean R-1 etc. You plan sounds like Hillary, “The Donald”, Jeb, Marco etc. Sounds good until you try to implement it.

  • old school June 17, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Please stop letting your Editors use the paper as their personal crying towel. I’m really bummed the city had the audacity to pick on one of his “friends”, but something needs to be done to prevent inconsiderate people from turning their neighborhoods into rest stops and public urinals just to make a quick buck. The city probably wouldn’t be coming down on this if there hadn’t been alot of complaints! Wake up Bozo!!!

    • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Read the article: “None of his neighbors complained about his being an Airbnb host, Palmer said, mainly because none of them even knew he was doing it.

      Even St. George Mayor Jon Pike, who lives two doors down from Palmer, had no idea Palmer was renting out his basement to travelers.”

      Palmer wasn’t causing any problems for his neighbors. This is just local government flexing its muscles cause they do that a lot here. These city ordinances need to be changed. Needless regulations cause needless suffering of the citizens.

      • anybody home June 18, 2015 at 10:13 am

        Izzy – you can read my longer response to you above, but the crux of it is, If you and others don’t like the regulations or laws, work to elect people who agree with you and will help get them changed. Complaining is never a useful strategy. And neither is law-breaking.

        • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 10:51 am

          Izzy is a self-proclaimed “freedom fighter” that has probably done nothing to protect our freedom other than “philosphically complain” about our tyranical government. Things like zoning laws that protect our property values and non-conforming uses in residential areas. Nasty seat belts that save lives and a heaven know what else provokes his sense of personal liberty trumping yours or anyone else that disagrees.

          • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 11:18 am

            Study Thomas Jefferson’s writings (including the U.S. Constitution), and you will understand my perspective. Less government = more freedom and happiness. Seems like a good thing to me. (Remember the U.S. Constitution’s goal for ALL Americans: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”??? How can we “pursue happiness” when the government is intervening so much in our lives? (Locally, state, and federally) My desire for liberty is a BAD thing? Really 42214? I support government and laws which protect life and property, NOT the intrusive nanny government Utahns/Americans are being suffocated by these days. Canada has more economic freedom does these days (Google the facts)! That should mean something to you.

          • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 12:22 pm

            IZ, look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You preach self-actualization and ignore the fact that personal safety (#2 level) is needed first. You preach the admirable goal of freedom but ignore the fact that freedom is not as important of personal safety because you can’t enjoy the latter without securing the former. Again, we have too many intrusive laws and regulations and there are those who truly want a nanny state. I detest that idea. I think you should be allowed to be as stupid as you want as long as you don’t impact others negatively with your stupidity. I just think you pick the dumbest battles to fight.

      • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 10:53 am

        Lot’s of times neighbors don’t complain about meth labs that they don’t know about . So you think it’s Ok to break the law as long as nobody complains?

        • izzymuse June 18, 2015 at 11:21 am

          Uh, now you’re comparing apples to oranges. Get back on track, 42214

          • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 12:10 pm

            Not apples and oranges, misdemeanors and felonies. Both crimes, just a matter of degree. You’re the one that claims Palmer is breaking the law without anyone knowing about it and somehow that’s a big mitigating factor.

          • 42214 June 18, 2015 at 1:27 pm

            Iz, before you cut and run like you did on the seat belt article when the texting question befuddled you, answer the last comment about “apples & oranges” and Palmer’s discrete violations of law is a mitigating factor.

          • 42214 June 19, 2015 at 9:44 am

            When the going gets tough, Izzy gets going. See ya later.

  • 42214 June 17, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    I don’t think anything else has to be said. Anybody Home nailed it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.