Making sense of short-term rentals

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The Flathead County commissioners have given a preliminary nod of approval to a zoning amendment that will regulate short-term rentals in zoned areas, and we think that’s a good thing.

Montanans, in the spirit of that old country classic, “Don’t Fence Me In,” tend to balk at increased regulation in their personal lives, but in the case of imposing some rules in the local burgeoning short-term rental market, it makes sense to have procedures that will protect both short-term rental owners and their neighbors.

Right now hundreds of VRBO (vacation rental by owner) and Airbnb homes are offered for nightly rent in the Flathead, but with no oversight or regulation. They are an illegal use in zoned areas of the county.

As the county Planning Board considered the new performance standards for short-term rentals, board members heard a wide range of testimony, from horror stories of vacationers gone wild to comments from short-term rental operators who couldn’t afford to live here if they weren’t able to rent out their homes and properties throughout the year.

The board was split on the proposed regulations and sent the proposal to the commissioners without a recommendation. When the commissioners looked at the proposal last week, they did so thoughtfully and thoroughly. As Commissioner Gary Krueger aptly pointed out, the new application process for an administrative conditional-use permit gives the county the ability to look at each rental situation individually. If a situation arises where mitigation is needed, the county Board of Adjustment would hear those cases and determine a course of action.

The commissioners’ decision was split, too, with Commissioner Phil Mitchell voting against it because he felt some issues hadn’t been fully addressed. There’s still time to further tweak the regulations; another public comment period will be held before the commissioners make a final decision.

We commend the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors for taking the lead in proposing a zoning amendment aimed at protecting homeowners, the property rights of neighbors and the traveling public’s safety and well-being. Making short-term rentals a legal use certainly better enables Realtors to help their clients, but these performance standards will benefit everyone and create a level playing field in the short-term rental market.

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