Whitefish Adopts Ordinance Affecting Short- and Medium-Term Rentals

The new ordinance as it affects medium-term rentals will go into effect in a year

By Mike Kordenbrock
A rental sign in front of the Whitefish Crossing apartments on June 22, 2017. Beacon file photo

The Whitefish City Council last week unanimously voted to approve an ordinance that will put zoning requirements in place for certain rentals being rented out for periods of between 30 and 90 days.

The ordinance requires rentals of 30 to 90 days that would qualify as “medium-term rentals” to be in zones classified as resort residential, similar to the zoning requirement for short-term rentals. City staff had come up with the proposed changes after being directed to look into the issue by the council following a report from the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan Committee.

Additionally, the ordinance adds more requirements for short term rentals, including registration, increased fire inspections, and advertising requirements, which Taylor said would add more tools for enforcement.

Council member Rebecca Norton expressed concerns about the speed of implementation and the financial effect it could have on people and businesses renting out affected properties, and so the council agreed implementation for the medium term rental aspect of the ordinance would take place a year from now, with Council Steve Qunell expressing interest in looking into modifying the ordinance in the meantime. Qunell had said he thought the ordinance was necessary but that he was specifically concerned about the way in which he viewed the ordinance creating a situation in which certain people, tourists or remote workers, would be viewed as different classes and thus treated differently when it came to rentals.

Part of the ordinance creates the definition of a “medium term” rental, which are rentals of “entirely furnished privately owned house townhouse unit condo unit or apartment or other residence to tourists and remote workers for stays between 30 and 90 days without the intent to rent to the same individual or group for long term housing.”

Medium term rental definition would not apply to long-term month-to-month rentals to individuals or families, or rentals of less than 90 days to local workers.

“There are websites that are cropping up that are specifically catering to medium term rentals, it is a market for that. We’re going to make sure they’re relegated to areas where short-term rentals are allowed only, so that they’re not taking up some of our other rentals,” City Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor said at a Dec. 6 council meeting where the council began discussing the ordinance and hearing public comment before continuing at the most recent council meeting.

Taylor added later that the ordinance could have some unintended consequences for people that are not year-round residents “but on the flip side it’s going to improve our ability to enforce short-term rentals and medium term rentals in zones where it should be long-term rentals.”

Various landlords, homeowners, and property management professionals spoke out against the proposal, with much of their concerns directed towards the medium-term rental definition and requirements. Among those opposing it was Kalispell resident and Montana Landlords Association President John Sinrud, who argued that the council was attempting to regulate things which legally could only be regulated by the state.

City Attorney Angela Jacobs expressed some concerns about state law potentially curtailing the city’s ability to regulate landlords.

“While I do think we’re definitely a charter city with self-governing powers, I have concerns about telling landlords about how long they can rent places for, and again I’m just very concerned about trying to enforce something like a mid-term rental sort of thing” she said.

Among those who spoke in support of the ordinance was Mariah Joos, the board chair for Explore Whitefish, and a member of the Sustainable Tourism Master Plan Committee.

“I think we all realize that Whitefish has long had a dedicated contingency of second home owners, visitors who have become part time residents when they were here and have treated our community with the respect and care that we as full time residents do as well. The issue we are now contending with is speculative real estate, and it’s having an effect on all of us,” she said.

Continuing, she said that the “capitalistic forces” in play were lumping in people as bad actors in an unfair way, but that  “Really the only way you can combat any sort of these capitalistic forces is through legislation, and oftentimes that is after the fact, and it is never a perfect solution to the problem that lays at hand. You’re kind of trying to stuff cats back into bags.”

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