Angst underlying the STR issue

As is not unusual in our little small town political world, the public meeting Monday night over STRs (short-term rentals) was pretty good. People spoke eloquently and with passion on both sides of the issue. For the most part, there was general respect for each speaker. Mayor Michel ran another pretty good meeting. Citizen committee chairman Alex Fenlon used the word “unfettered.” Good stuff. I remain amazed at how this community deals with issues that aren’t always slam-dunks and have the potential to be contentious.

And Lord knows the STR issue is not a slam-dunk. They aren’t going away and even if they did, no one seems to believe they would open up affordable long-term rental opportunities. So the question and general direction expressed by the Town Council was how to do something, anything, that respects the town of Crested Butte and its values while preventing Crested Butte from morphing into a landscape of Motel 6 hotels. No easy answer has emerged after many months of debate. That is okay.

To me, Monday’s special Crested Butte council meeting had a primal scream element under the surface. With STRs being the touchstone, angst over a quickly changing community was the underlying issue.

Without it being said directly, I got the feeling there was a cry from most people who can’t put their finger on exactly why, but feel a community they love is slipping away. More STRs is one aspect of that fear but really a small one. Rising property values and prices that make it difficult for blue collar workers to afford a piece of dirt in town is bigger. Town building fees that significantly jack up the cost of construction in Crested Butte tend to push working families to Crested Butte South, so that’s a part of it.

The fact the Crested Butte proper is artsy and cool, has an honest small-town scale, is very limited in its boundaries and is still pedestrian-friendly makes property values rise. Add to that the physical and spirit amenities (ice rinks, arts centers, free music, easy access to beautiful places, great parks, quirky characters and lots of reasons to wear a costume) and you have a desirable place to own property and live. Locals like it here for a lot of reasons and so do a lot more people who are discovering the valley. And then the free market takes over and the dude washing dishes for $12 an hour cannot even fathom owning a place in town like dishwashers of 25 years ago did. There have always been dark second homes in town but there seem to be more of them. The fear is that restricting STRs will bring even more darkness. A hollow town is not a community. And perhaps that is where the scream is emanating from: The fear of a community lost.

We all want to live in a perfect small town with lots to do and friendly neighbors who watch our kids when we take a ski run or watch our dog when we slip out of town. We want a great school at no cost and a mortgage or rent payment that doesn’t eat away at the wallet. We want a cheap season ski pass, a sweet but affordable bike and a $15 ticket to catch Taj Mahal at the Center for the Arts. We want to walk into the bar where everyone knows our name and we have a tab. We want to live in a place where we can sit next to the ski area executive, the local teacher and the lift op on the colorful bus to the mountain. We want our skis tuned for a six-pack and the Subaru to never break down. We want our kids to grow up with the same supportive friends for 12 years in school and we want to kick Telluride’s butt in whatever sport we play. We don’t want to be forced to work so much to pay the bills that we have no time to enjoy the backcountry or a half hour on the bench to catch up with acquaintances. We want to be able to enjoy the place we live and escape somewhere warm and sandy (and affordable) after the season’s end.

Believe it or not, all of that was part of this place not so long ago. Much of it still exists but people can smell the change as those elements are harder to experience. That is what I was hearing under the surface Monday evening. It is certainly getting harder to live here and a lot of the easy living isn’t so easy without a real bank account. That is not the fault of STRs.

STRs seem one of many symptoms of the change causing angst. I appreciate the council slowing down on any huge decision to gather more hard data. Putting in common sense regulations and higher licensing fees makes sense to do soon. I too believe that once some hard regulations and more expensive licensing fees come into play, the number of STR licenses in town will decrease. The idea of limiting the number of nights a house can be rented seems worth considering. Gather the data numbers and determine a fair number based on today’s rentals—probably somewhere in the 75 to 90-night range—and put it in place. That seems like reasonable action and can help a neighborhood from being only a pocket of hotel rooms (except probably in July).

The council will also look at enforcing current zoning that does not allow STRs in some residential and business zones. They could allow those who were issued licenses by the town in those zones to keep their STRs and start enforcing zoning as it stands. There is your cap limit in Crested Butte. But the council will have to wrestle with the “fairness” question for other property owners living next door in the same zone who don’t have such licenses. That is a hard decision the council has to make. They’ll earn their money with that decision.

There was a lot of “feeling” and emotion spoken Monday night and it appeared at times the real question people were trying to answer was how to maintain the soul of a cool community and address coming changes. In that big picture, understand that everything happening here right now is connected. Expanding the Center for the Arts to 37,000 square feet, the potential annexation north of town, the mine resolution, the constant tourist promotion, the higher taxes for more parks, the future roundabout—all impact and change the place. The angst voiced Monday is understandable. But as long as the community can come together to discuss controversial issues in an aura of respect, I think we haven’t yet lost the unfettered spirit of Crested Butte.

—Mark Reaman

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