Keep the momentum with STRs but don’t forget the real meat and potatoes

While ultimately making some headway and admitting they have a tough “political” decision regarding possible limits on short-term rentals (STRs) in town, the Crested Butte Town Council members didn’t do themselves any favors in the political arena Monday night. The end product I think was good but the process getting there was pretty clumsy, confusing and blocked out the public. On this hot topic in particular the council doesn’t need a perplexed public. There was even a bit of irony Monday when late in the council meeting the mayor, who was not in the room during the STR discussion, said one priority of every CAST (Colorado Association of Ski Towns) community was an engaged public and Crested Butte fit that bill. Well, most of the time.

Earlier that evening, in a sometimes cryptic discussion, the five council members now charged with regulating STRs voted to pass an ordinance without much discussion (that night) about what it was they actually passed. They used the term “meat and potatoes” to describe the contents of the ordinance so much I thought someone in the audience might throw a brisket at them to get their attention. Remember when the council characterized the health and safety aspects as “low-hanging fruit?” Their food metaphors were giving me hunger pangs.

It took me a few hours after the meeting to figure out what they did—and in the end I think they did the right thing and deserve a pat on the back—but at the time there were a few questions not answered and the citizens left in a bit of a haze. That was unfortunate.

Ultimately they dropped the part of the ordinance dealing with caps and limits on STRs in town and will delve further into those options this coming Wednesday. They want an easy-to-understand template from staff to discuss the options, including utilizing current zoning to regulate the number of STRs.

In hindsight, it’s clear the lack of public comment Monday was somewhat accidental when council debate led them to a place where they could do something quickly and check something off their STR list. And when a motion was made it appeared councilmembers felt parliamentary rules would not allow any public comment or questions. People who have been to every meeting had little idea what had transpired. New faces in the audience weren’t following the discussion at all. And while I believe they are heading down the right path, it was a faux pas to leave engaged constituents silent, and more important, confused.

So that was the point in the meeting where my head sort of exploded and I inappropriately (as I sometimes do) started using inappropriate language (as I sometimes often do) to give voice to the head scratching going on in the cheap seats of the audience. I apologized (as I sometimes have to do) to Roland, who was running the meeting. But it drives me crazy when action is taken in a mist of confusion. I was wondering about a clause in the ordinance requiring property owners who use the Airbnb model of STRs to “be present on the subject premises during use as a vacation rental.” I wanted to know when the council would decide on the amount of the fee for such an STR license described in the ordinance and when property inspections might begin and who would do them. There were other questions from citizens left unanswered that probably could have easily been addressed.

Then, councilman Ladoulis was clear he was not going to let the elephant in the room—how to limit STR rental nights in town—escape to the political fog machine where issues go to be studied and are never heard from again. So they started discussing the need for special meetings and work sessions to be held quickly to analyze options to limit STRs. The staff indicated they could use a little time to gather the requested info in the format the council requested. They got a bit more than a week.

The bottom line is that with the passage of the so-called meat and potatoes ordinance Monday, STRs now will have more steps to go through to get a license. There will be property inspections and ID numbers and contact persons, and neighbor notifications and probably a significant license fee. The current town land use regulations still apply to the STR scene and such rentals are not technically allowed in certain neighborhoods. For the time being, no more STR business licenses will be issued in those zones where short-term renting is currently prohibited.

I applaud mayor Michel and councilwoman Mitchell for stepping down from the STR discussion since their gut told them what many of us were wondering for a while—that a potential conflict of interest was possible since they were discussing a vote that could legalize their personal STR licenses in places currently not permitted. And I applaud the council for separating out the safety regulations on STRs and trying to clear the haze on the limit options.

The council members acknowledge they probably cannot come to a consensus that everyone in the town will love on this issue so it will be interesting to see how complicated they want to make their STR position. I wasn’t sure at the time on Monday but I believe the council is moving down a path to bring clarity to the issue and that ultimately is a good decision.

They could make it really simple and “preserve” several local neighborhoods at the special meeting on Wednesday and simply instruct the staff to enforce already in-place zoning while giving leeway to non-conforming STR business licenses in town—but whatever they do, I trust they will give the public a chance to question and comment. After all, that’s the meat and potatoes of good, effective small-town government.

—Mark Reaman

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