County to Tackle Short-Term Rentals

Text amendment would add regulation for rentals lasting fewer than 30 days in zoned areas of the county

By Molly Priddy
Shutterstock photo.

For many Flathead County residents, the idea of the “sharing economy” has emerged with new technology allowing them to easily rent out a room in their house or chauffeur visitors around in their personal car.

But the concept of short-term rentals has been on the radar in the Flathead for years, and is an aspect of the real estate economy that has garnered more attention recently due to the proliferation of websites such as AirBnB and VRBO.

A relative explosion of these rentals in the valley has once again spurred the conversation to the fore for the county, which will consider a text amendment to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations to implement a permitting process for such rentals in the county’s zoned areas. Roughly 70 percent of county land is un-zoned and requires no permitting, and thus has no regulations on rentals.

The Flathead County Planning Board will take public comment on this proposed amendment during a hearing on Feb. 8.

Flathead County Planning Director Mark Mussman said the zoning regulations currently allow rental use in residential zoning districts for stays of 30 days or longer.

“So when we get a complaint of an alleged violation that somebody, a neighbor, is marketing their home for short-term rentals, then we investigate,” Mussman said. “Then they have to stop.”

He estimated there are about 200 short-term rentals in zoned areas of the county available on a myriad of websites and apps, and few of those rentals are likely allowed in the current zoning uses. Complaints about these rentals typically spur up in the summer, and for the most part, when property owners are contacted about the violation, they are unaware of the existing 30-day rule.

The proposed text amendment, which comes from the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors (NMAR), wants to define short-term rentals as those used for fewer than 30 days and make them require an administrative conditional-use permit (ACUP) from the county.

The text amendment was recently presented for public comment at both the Lakeside and Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committees, though neither board gave a recommendation. The BLUAC meeting had a nearly 50-50 split between opponents and supporters of the couple dozen people present, whereas Lakeside was mostly supportive of the amendment.

Some Flathead Valley residents have concerns about short-term rentals as a whole, and would prefer to see the 30-day minimum stay in place. Concerns include but are not limited to noise pollution, lack of consideration from renters and owners for neighbors; garbage; lack of parking; and housing price depreciation.

Erica Wirtala, public affairs director for NMAR, said the group offered to write up the text amendment for the county because it had been on the backburner for years and the issue was coming to a head in the Flathead.

NMAR approached the county zoning regulations with the idea that if a use isn’t specified in the conditional uses allowed in residential zones, then it’s illegal.

“The county has no option but to just order a cease and desist, and there are no alternatives for that person,” Wirtala said.

It comes down to a property rights issue, she said. People should be able to use their homes and property how they wish, but the current regulations do not allow for stays shorter than 30 days. Short-term rentals are a bit like the toothpaste already squeezed from the tube, she said, and this text amendment could clear out some of the listings.

Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls have all discussed the issue within city limits, Wirtala said.

The text amendment is in-depth — it’s a completely new section of text for the zoning regulations. In it, people seeking an administrative conditional-use permit for a short-term rental would have to follow guidelines regarding maximum occupancy; staying true to homeowner associations and covenants; no signage other than address numbers; having a person or management company to contact 24 hours a day for emergencies or problems, and that contact information must be made available to adjacent and abutting property owners; and having a minimum of two, off-street parking spaces.

Applicants for short-term rentals must also obtain a state of Montana Public Accommodation License for a Tourist Home, which is administered through the Flathead City-County Health Department and is subject to annual inspections. The owners must also obtain a “health and safety” certificate from a local fire department.

Short-term rentals would also be subject to the state bed tax.

Property owners would have three strikes for valid and substantive complaints of disturbances of the peace, health, or safety. Any decisions to suspend or revoke an ACUP would occur at a hearing before the Flathead County Board of Adjustment.

In total, Wirtala estimated the total cost for a property owner to obtain an ACUP from start to finish would be about $325.

The Flathead County Planning Board will take public comment on the text amendment on Feb. 8 at the South Campus Building, located at 40 11th St. W., Suite 200, Kalispell. For more information, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/.

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