Pitkin County moves closer to adopting short-term rental rules

Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday hammered out a compromise on two main issues holding up a proposed short-term rental ordinance.

The agreement, which will be codified in official legalese and open for public comment at the board’s regular meeting April 13, came at the end of nearly four hours of debate and virtual and in-person comments by members of the public.

“I don’t want corporations to come in and create profit centers and take away from the community,” Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper said. “These exceptions need to be further vetted.”

The proposed ordinance would only apply to residences in unincorporated Pitkin County. Residences within the city of Aspen, Snowmass Village and the Town of Basalt would fall under those individual municipal short-term rental ordinances.

Much of the debate Wednesday centered on a proposed rule that only primary residences could be rented out on Vrbo, Airbnb or other short-term rental websites. That proposal did not sit well with many people who have owned property in Pitkin County for years or decades, stay here for extended periods and rent them out to help offset mortgage costs.

Commissioners Francie Jacober and Steve Child also didn’t like that idea.

“There’s just too many exceptions to take such a draconian step,” Jacober said, noting that many property owners are part-time residents and consider themselves “part of our world.”

So, commissioners spent much time debating exceptions to the primary residence rule. Finally, Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury suggested the compromise that her fellow board members supported, some begrudgingly.

According to that compromise, owners of residences who want a short-term rental license would have show proof of ownership of the property to be rented for at least 10 years, along with a five-year rental history documented by sales tax receipts submitted to the state.

Clapper initially suggested 30 years of ownership and 8-10 years of rental history, though that was a non-starter for Jacober and Child. Clapper ended up supporting McNicholas Kury’s compromise.

Specific short-term rental rules that will apply only to Redstone and Woody Creek — where residents have been particularly vocal about the impacts of short-term rentals — are likely to be included in the final ordinance set to come back before the board next month.

The second major issue was whether to allow short-term rentals in the county’s Rural and Remote zoning district. And, at least initially, commissioners agreed that won’t be allowed to happen, though Clapper left the door open to possibly including some Rural and Remote properties during summer in the future.

Colter Smith, whose family owns a cabin on the backside of Aspen Mountain, attempted to convince commissioners that because he was the only one in that zoning district currently renting out his property on a short-term basis, he should be allowed to continue. His 1,000-square-foot cabin is solidly built from concrete, features a satellite phone, is located 25 minutes from the hospital and has a large water tank, he said.

“As far as I know, we’re the only ones (doing short-term rentals in Rural and Remote) so I just feel like exceptions should be made,” Smith said.

But Pitkin County Community Development Director Cindy Houben lobbied hard against Rural and Remote properties being included. The county and previous incarnations of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners have worked for 25 years to keep that district — the largest in the county — environmentally protected, she said.

In addition, emergency services in the event of an accident or a wildfire simply cannot get to those areas quickly, she said.

“This is a hard push by me to say please do not allow short-term rentals in the Rural and Remote zoning district,” Houben said. “I think it would be a big mistake for this community.”

The short-term rental ordinance for unincorporated Pitkin County has been more than a year in coming. It began as an effort to collect sales tax on a booming new local lodging option, but morphed into a campaign focused on preventing the “hotelification” of neighborhoods.

The ordinance was set to go into effect April 30, though the lengthy debate may push that date further into the spring. Jacober, in particular, worried about how that would affect those who want to rent out their properties this summer because applications must be vetted first and licenses won’t be automatically granted.

However, Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said a hard date simply could not be set because the board hasn’t yet passed the ordinance. That effective start date will likely be set next month when the issue is addressed again.