News & Features

County Approves Short-Term Rental Regulations

Individuals living in residentially zoned areas of the county will need a permit to operate Airbnb or VRBO legally

The Flathead County Commission approved adding new language to the county zoning regulations to manage short-term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO.

The county has spent months discussing how and if to regulate short-term rentals as Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls have done. The Northwest Montana Association of Realtors came to the county with a proposed text amendment to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations that would allow for rental stays shorter than 30 days in a residence.

Currently, regulations only allow property owners to rent out their homes for stints of 30 days or longer, meaning anyone running a short-term rental in a zoned area of county land is likely out of compliance.

The text amendment would allow for stays shorter than 30 days in zones where single-family dwelling units are allowed. The regulations require property owners to obtain an administrative conditional-use permit from the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department, as well as a Public Accommodation License from the state, which is administered through the Flathead City-County Health Department.

The guidelines within the amendment include rules for: 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, with that contact information made available to adjacent and abutting property owners; and having enough parking spaces.

Originally, the text amendment included maximum room occupancy standards limited to two people per room, but the commission changed the standard to whatever the sewage disposal capacity is. Commissioner Phil Mitchell voted against the change.

The commission also changed the requirement for two off-street parking spaces, replacing the number requirement with the word “adequate,” since the administrative conditional-use permit would show available off-street parking and is a basic part of the review criteria.

Eventually, the commission voted to approve the text amendment, but it wasn’t a unanimous vote for the all-Republican board. Mitchell voted against approving the new guidelines, saying he didn’t think it adequately represented all parties involved in the discussions.

Mitchell wanted to define a short-term rental as having a minimum stay of three nights. Allowing single-night stays creates a hotel-like experience, Mitchell said, which isn’t part of living in a residential zone.

“People in R-1 residential zones should be able to expect a different lifestyle than living next to a hotel,” Mitchell said.

However, when Mitchell proposed an amendment to add the minimum-stay requirement, it received no support from the other commissioners and died before it came to a vote.

When it came time to vote on the whole proposal, Mitchell said the minimum-stay requirement as well as the maximum occupancy standards were sticking points for him.

“I don’t think we’ve addressed the people in the R-1 correctly who have single homes,” Mitchell said.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist disagreed.

“We have listened to all the comments and have addressed all the issues we could address,” Holmquist said.

Commissioner Gary Krueger said the whole idea behind an administrative conditional-use permit is individual review, and that short-term rentals were not made an explicitly permitted use.

“A permitted use would allow any type of stays,” Krueger said. “The conditional use, that’s what they’re for. They’re there to look individually at every situation.”

Krueger also said if there are disagreements even after a permit is issued, it can be heard in front of the county’s Board of Adjustment.

“We’ve put a lot of sideboards on this — more sideboards that I ever thought would go on any use of this type,” Krueger said before the vote. “I really think that we’ve done a good job here.”