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Planning subcommittee gets an earful on short-term rental issues

Friday, March 18, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The week of South by Southwest would seem to be the ideal time to discuss the issue of short-term rentals.

 

Leading up to the festival, Craigslist is littered with hundreds of ads for people willing to give up their homes and apartments to the thousands of people coming in. So it seemed appropriate that the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances subcommittee would revisit the issue of short-term rentals this week.

 

Planner Robert Heil had to admit that the subcommittee was overwhelmed by the interest in a stakeholders meeting on Jan. 27. As Heil acknowledged, “Many concerns and many issues” were raised at that meeting.

 

The Planning and Development Review Department determined just last week that short-term rental use does fall within the single-family residence zoning category, rather than being shunted off to a restrictive hotel-motel use.

 

“The Code Compliance Division continues to enforce all applicable regulations regarding residential housing,” wrote Greg Guernsey in a letter dated March 12. “A rented residential structure, even one which is rented for a short period of time, is not classified as a Hotel/Motel land use under the existing City Land Use Code. While these uses are still classified as single family residential uses, the frequent rental of a single family home for short durations can make the minor conflicts often experienced by all neighbors more difficult to resolve.”

 

Hence, city staff is trying to figure out what to do with short-term rentals and determine at what point they turn into something the city needs to actually register and monitor.

 

In the short term, the city auditor would like for these rentals to pay a hotel occupancy tax,  Heil said. Even vacation rentals are covered.

 

In the long term, the city is looking for a way to target that subset of short-term rentals that Heil describes politely as “un-neighborly.” For some, non-emergency complaints to such properties can often be slow, Heil said.

 

Commissioner Danette Chimenti questioned city legal staff closely on how short-term rentals might differ from the highly regulated bed and breakfast category. The bed and breakfast industry, however, chose to be highly regulated in order to create a certain amount of exclusivity, according to city staff.

 

In fact, the bed and breakfast industry lobbied for special provisions to their conditional use in their zoning category. For instance, bed and breakfast establishments must be at least 1,000 feet apart, not unlike sexually oriented businesses, Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey noted.

 

Guernsey, in fact, expressed a preference for the Planning Commission weighing in on the issue. Making a permanent change to the city land use code, he said, would be cleaner than requiring each and every case to go through the Board of Adjustment. A change could streamline the process.

 

“An interpretation by you would be smoother and cleaner than going through the Board of Adjustment,” Guernsey told the subcommittee. No one seemed inclined to hold the short-term rentals for events like SXSW or Austin City Limits Festival to the same construction standards as commercial properties intended for hotel/motel use.

 

Representatives of local neighborhoods in attendance appeared to be okay with short-term rentals, with the exception of those with poor screening processes or absentee landlords. City staff had done a review of other cities prior to the meeting. Some, like New Braunfels, are imposing standards of use similar to a hotel/motel zoning designation.

 

With much to discuss and define, Heil suggested a follow-up meeting with local homeowners, which everyone seemed to support. That meeting, Heil said, should guide staff’s recommendation to Council on the issue.

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