City hears talk for, against Airbnb-like short-term rentals

The Palmer home, where the Palmers rent out their basement to travelers who use the Airbnb service, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2015 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Within the city, across the county, and far beyond that, travelers are using short-term vacation rentals as alternatives to hotels via popular websites like VRBO.com and Airbnb.com. Many of these short-term rentals take the forms of homes within residential areas. While some properties are managed by out-of-state owners, others are owner-occupied, only renting out a portion their homes to travelers.

While an increasingly popular and alternative to staying in a hotel or campsite, both instances currently exist in violation of city code that does not allow for short-term vacation rentals in single-family neighborhoods.

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, previously told St. George News.

In the case of so-called “party houses” – large homes maintained by out-of-town owners that are rented out to large groups of people at a time – neighboring residents have complained to city officials about an increase of traffic, noise, trash and other potential nuisances in the immediate area.

In some cases there is also no on-site property manager to enforce any rules to help keep the short-term renters from running afoul of neighbors.

“We have a big issue on our street,” resident Brad Harr said in a City Council meeting Thursday.

Harr lives across the street from two homes that out-of-state owners advertise online as places that are great for family vacations and reunions, he said. One home is listed as being able to host 26 people, while the other can host up to 52.

“It’s just not right for our neighborhood,” he said.

At a City Council meeting Thursday night packed with residents gathered to discuss the ordinance governing short-term rentals with city officials, no one – including those who live in the homes they rent out – spoke in favor of the so-called party houses managed by out-of-state property owners.

“Whatever issues you can bring up, I will wholeheartedly agree with you,” said Stephen Palmer, a Bloomington resident and Airbnb host. “Why? Because I live in my home.”


Read more: Airbnb host challenges city’s short-term rental ordinance


Palmer has been renting out his basement via the Airbnb website to travelers since December 2014. In May he was sent a notice that told him he was in violation of city code by doing so. He has since engaged with city officials about changing the ordinance in favor of owner-occupied rentals like those offered through Airbnb.

People really need to differentiate between owner-occupied rentals and the party houses, Palmer said.

Palmer said he agrees with Harr – he wouldn’t want to live next to a short-term rental managed by out-of-state investors either.

“I would not want that in my neighborhood,” Palmer said. “… but understand, that is a different situation.”

Palmer, as well as other Airbnb hosts attending the meeting, said in most cases their neighbors didn’t even know they were renting out parts of their homes to travelers. Negative issues associated with other short-term rental properties are not present with owner-occupied ones, they said.

Being an Airbnb host also provides additional income. In Palmer’s case, he said his family earns an extra $1,000 a month.

According to a report on Airbnb’s economic impact on the middle class by former White House National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling, supplemental income earned by Airbnb hosts can represent a 14 percent rise in their annual income. On a single property, that income averages around $7,530 in supplementary income annually.

Also according to the report, the majority of Airbnb hosts are working families who rent out their primary residence for an average of 66 days a year.

Dean Terry, a local developer, spoke out against short-term rentals in general and asked the council not to change the current ordinance.

If they’re not in a commercial zone, don’t allow it,” Terry said. “Don’t open the floodgates.”

Representing the St. George Lodging and Tourism Association, Shayne Wittwer, whose family also maintains four hotels in the city, spoke against allowing the home-based short-term rentals.

“We have a lot of concerns with Airbnb, VRBO and the others, but it’s not just us,” Wittwer said. “Understand there are concerns on a state level, on a national level. This is not going away, and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem.”

Safety and security are a concern Wittwer said. There’s no way to know the character of the people who will be staying in someone’s home, and that can pose a safety risk to the homeowners and neighborhood in general.

The hotel industry also has to abide by strict safety and health regulations – what about the homes?

This city has a hotel policy that is very restrictive, and I can tell you it would be very hard for a home to be able to comply with those requirements,” Wittwer said. “Why would they be able to get around that when we’re forced to comply with those?”

Another issue brought up by Wittwer and others was related to the transient room tax. Revenue gained from the tax is used to market St. George and Washington County as a tourism destination. The short-term vacation rentals don’t generate that tax.

“Taxes are a huge issue,” he said.

In response to the tax issue, Palmer, as well as other Airbnb hosts, told the City Council they would be willing to get business licenses and pay the room tax if allowed. Under the current ordinance though, neither is a possibility.

I would be happy to pay a lodging fee, a tax,” Airbnb host Chris McArdle said.

Kendall Clements, who manages about 50 short-term rental properties for clients across the county, said the majority of the people who use the rentals don’t cause any trouble.

“I’ve had near 2,000 guests stays since I started operations and I can count six that I’ve had to go out and deal with that I call unwholesome, or unsavory type of guests out there,” Clements said. “So I know that problems can happen, I believe it to be a small issue.”

Near the close of the meeting, Councilman Jimmie Hughes asked Palmer what he would say to other homeowners who bought their homes not expecting to have to eventually deal with a neighbor becoming an Airbnb host.

“It’s called private property,” Palmer said. “If I’m not harming you in any demonstrable way, what right do you have to tell me what I can and can’t do with my property? Where do you get that right?”

No action was taken by the City Council concerning the ordinance Thursday. However, Mayor Jon Pike said the council and city staff would continue to take input and discuss the situation.

If the ordinance is changed, the matter will go first to the Planning Commission and then the City Council. In both cases, Pike said, public hearing will be held.

Airbnb is spread over 190 counties and has served other 35 million guests across the globe since its inception in 2008, according to the company website. It has also generated $3.2 billion for community hosts over the past seven years.

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

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

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5 Comments

  • KarenS July 12, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    The solution is that new development in Santa Clara where houses are sold with the option of owner offering vacation rentals. There is an on-site manager with short-term rentals allowed by zoning. I assume the city will receive taxes and everyone who buys a home knows that the area is a vacation rental. Seems like everyone wins.

    On the other side of the spectrum are vacation rentals in HOA’s (which are prohibited in the CCR’s) but hard to track down and enforce with fines. Because pools, etc are owned by all the homeowners, the short-term people tend to think it is a resort and feel free to do whatever they want. All of the homeowners end up paying for the damage.

    Changing the zoning to allow vacation rentals in any residential area is a mistake, in my opinion. Leave the zoning as it is.

    • Bender July 13, 2015 at 11:07 am

      On the plus side, the European airbnders may skinny dip in the common pool and give us all a thrill.

  • izzymuse July 12, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    A. I hope citizens show up and voice their concerns/ideas.
    B. I hope the elected city leaders LISTEN to what is actually expressed by the citizens and make changes (as needed) to reflect the community’s needs/concerns.

  • 42214 July 12, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    If you want to run a motel, live on the Blvd.

  • old school July 12, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Way to go VRBO.com/Airbnb.com, lets just strip mine the whole town and squeeze every dollar we can out of it. Who cares what it looks like tomorrow, nobody lives forever right?

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