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Debate over short-term rentals begins to boil prior to today’s meeting

Thursday, August 2, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

With a vote scheduled today at Austin City Council, neither side of the increasingly contentious short-term rental debate appears to be backing down.


Despite a proposal passing on first reading in June and closing the public hearing, the rhetoric on both sides has reached a fever pitch.


An early-morning email to In Fact Daily from a person who would prefer to remain anonymous warned that a group called “Protect Austin Neighborhoods” was advocating violence on their public Yahoo! group, citing community activist Susan Moffat’s assertion that “it may be time for torches and pitchforks” as an example.


Moffat eschews any violent intent on her part.


“I’m extremely angry at the moment about the way this whole ordinance has been handled, but I certainly would never suggest or condone violence,” Moffat told In Fact Daily. “I am not a violent person. That [using ‘torches and pitchforks’] was never intended as a violent image. It’s just an old Frankenstein movie image. It’s shorthand for ‘the community is riled up’.”


But the postings by Moffat, Jason Meeker, Steve McGuire, Peter Nesbit and others seem to indicate a paranoid streak in the group.


A posting by Meeker transcribes a text exchange, allegedly sent from an untraceable prepaid phone, which warns him that emails from the group have been sent to Council members. One text states: “today may need to be about damage control,” and another promises “you need the info I have.”


A call to the “burner” by In Fact Daily found a voice mail recording that seemed to be recorded by Shaggy from Scooby Doo, and did not result in a returned phone call.


One of the last messages posted by McGuire warns of “a mole” in the group, and advises members to cease posting on the site immediately. Soon after the group was changed to members only. (Accessing the Yahoo group requires approval by the group owner.)


The email sent to In Fact Daily also reproduces a post from a “Michael Cosper,” in which he warns that no matter what the outcome at Council on Thursday, “this issue is devolving to the streets.”


“(T)he political fabric of this town is being torn apart to make us into a tourist mecca, an entertainment theme park that is good to visit but hellacious to live here,” writes Cosper, who outlines a strategy of rude signs in neighborhoods to deter short-term renters. Cosper ends his message on an ominous note, writing, “Political if not actual blood is going to be spilled poisoning the relationship between citizen and government.”


However, there is a question as to the identity of the person calling himself Michael Cosper. Neither Meeker nor Moffat said they had any knowledge of Cosper, who they said was not a member of the PAN Austin. An Austin artist of the same name died in 2004.


“I don’t even know if the person exists. I’ve never heard of [him]. … People use phony names all the time on message boards. I do not know who that is,” Meeker said. “I can’t take ownership for comments I didn’t make, that no one in my group made, and for someone who may be fictitious. Until that person comes forward and says, ‘I said that,’ I don’t even know who that is, and I can’t even begin to give it any kind of credence or judgment.”


An email sent to Cosper was not returned by In Fact Daily’s deadline Wednesday night.


“Any of the discussions we had were aimed at the goal to prevent commercial short-term rentals from being legalized by the Austin City Council,” said Meeker. “No one should misconstrue anything we said as being unlawful or disrespectful. People can use hyperbole and other flippant language in email in ways that they would never say in person. That happens all the time.”


Carl Shepherd, co-founder and chief strategy officer for HomeAway Austin, the Austin-based company that has created an online service that allows home owners to rent their properties to travelers confirmed that he had seen a shift in tone as discussions about short-term rentals have dragged on over the past two years.


“Over the past two years, the local opponents to short-term rentals have changed from making reasonable suggestions to regulate the practice, such as providing the contact information of short-term rental owners, to the perpetuation of myths such as short-term rentals being the cause of crime in neighborhoods or the reason why schools are closing. Unfortunately, the latest tactics focus on building fear rather than understanding, and have caused much confusion,” Shepherd said.


HomeAway supports the version of the proposal that City Council passed in June that would  significantly cap “Type II” short-term rentals to 3 percent of any ZIP code in an effort to reduce clustering of short-term rentals. Protect Austin Neighborhoods wants to prohibit these “commercial” short-term rentals.


Council is scheduled to vote today on all the regulations related to short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. On June 7, City Council passed the proposal 5-2 on first reading, setting up for a final vote on second and third readings, which are required for passage.

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