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Planning Commission finalizes recommendations for short-term rentals

Thursday, May 24, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

In a debate that lasted until nearly midnight Tuesday, the Planning Commission pieced together its recommendations on a short-term rental ordinance that would create regulations on the properties for the first time.


The regulations have been in process since 2010, and the process has been deeply contentious.


“This was really hard,” said Commission Member Mandy Dealey, who was a part of the working group formed to discuss Austin’s short-term rentals.


“We hoped that we would be able to bring all the stakeholders closer to middle ground, and it got to be pretty clear that the more we talked about it, the further apart the sides got,” said Dealey. “There really was no consensus that came out of that group, even though we worked on it for several months. And what we put together was our take on what was the best way to address the problems and concerns that we had seen. I know that neither side loves it.”


Following the working group, the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee crafted recommendations that attempted to appease both those that opposed short-term rentals, and those that owned and operated the properties.


The divide between the two camps was so great that following the stakeholder process, each side regrouped and produced its own regulations, signing and publishing them online independently.


Members of the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee were also chagrined to see that staff had not recommended their code amendments.


“I’m a little frustrated,” said Commissioner Jean Stevens. “To receive the staff recommendation on Friday which pretty much, in my opinion, guts everything that the subcommittee and work group did on this project – it’s a little frustrating to me to be this late in the game and have this recommendation now.”


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven explained that the request to change the code was made “quite a while ago” and their recommendations had remained consistent. “What has happened is not that the staff recommendation has just been put before you. Rather, the staff recommendation has not changed since the initial charge,” said Rusthoven.


The staff recommendations centered on inspection and registration for short-term rentals, which they said would increase communication with owners, compliance with hotel-occupancy tax requirements, and provide a 24-hour local contact for each property. The staff proposal also states that registration will provide more information on each rental.


The recommendations that came out of the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee are more complex, dividing the rentals into two categories: homestead and commercial, describing where they would and would not be allowed in the city, limiting their use, and addressing issues of enforcement.


Despite staff’s recommendation, the commission voted to adopt the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee recommendations, with some last minute changes.


These changes included removing the content in a section on non-conforming uses to be written later, and clarifying language that would revoke registration under some circumstances. The commission also requested a definition for the word “gatherings,” which would be a proposed conditional use.


“I think it is a dangerous thing to haggle over wording on ordinances at a late hour, when we may not have the ability to look back or fully consider the ramifications of the language we are putting forward,” said Commissioner Dave Anderson. “I wasn’t in the committee, so as a responsible Commissioner, I have to express this concern.”


Commissioners Anderson, Alfonso Hernandez and Richard Hatfield all abstained from the vote, which was 6-0-3, citing discomfort with the complex document. It is worth noting that none of them served on the subcommittee, and were less familiar with the recommendations as a result.


The suggestion that the process be extended was met with resistance.


“I’m ticked off a little bit, just a tad. I think that for us being volunteer public servants, we have put in a whole lot of time on this, trying to get this to a point where this reflected a compromise, and to have not any support for it tells me that I won’t give it any more personal time,” said Commissioner Saundra Kirk. “In terms of trying to draft something that is going to be a quality product, I’m out. I’m not going to do that.”


Though Council is scheduled to weigh in on short-term rentals today, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said at the Council work session that both sides have asked for a postponement and it seems likely that the matter will be put off.

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