Routt County upping the ante on illegal short-term rentals

Two vacation rental properties in the Treehaus subdivision are only rented once a month to circumvent Routt County regulations prohibiting short-term rentals in unincorporated areas of the county.
John F. Russell / Steamboat Pilot and Today

On their Airbnb listings, vacation rentals in the Tree Haus neighborhood advertise impeccable views of the mountains around Steamboat Springs.

Two of those listings are operated by iTrip Vacations Steamboat Springs, a company that rents out 105 properties in and around the city. It is part of a larger network that advertises vacation properties in many other Colorado resorts and across the country.

But the two Tree Haus properties are different from the hundreds of short-term rentals flanking the slopes of Mount Werner across US Highway 40. Tree Haus is in unincorporated Routt County, where the short term rentals are not permitted.

“We don’t do short-term rentals in these units,” said Jason Loeb, who owns and operates iTrip Vacations Steamboat Springs. “We do one rental per month, every 30 days, and this is in full compliance with the county and the owner, and both have confirmed this.”

Loeb said a handful of local iTrip properties are being rented like this — some of them due to the city’s moratorium on vacation home rental permits, which was extended through June 30 on last month.

A short-term rental is defined in Routt County as any property rented for less than one month. Other than a bed and breakfast or guest ranch permit, stays of less than one month are not permitted in unincorporated parts of the county.

Still, county officials estimate there are as many as 200 illegal short-term rentals throughout the county, many well beyond the city limits of Steamboat.

Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who spoke on the matter, said he disagreed with Loeb’s interpretation of county rules, but added that it would be difficult for the county to take action.

Because short-term rentals are prohibited in all areas, there is no system to enforce them other than in court, and a screenshot of an Airbnb advertisement is not considered evidence. .

Any legal action would likely require neighbors or county staff to gather evidence and testify, Corrigan said.

As a result, the commissioners approved the hiring of a code compliance officer, and the position was posted earlier this month. County Executive Jay Harrington said the position will be split between the construction and planning departments, and part of the role will be short-term rentals.

“A big part of the goal is more to promote voluntary compliance with our regulations,” Corrigan said. “Sometimes people don’t even know there are zoning violations.”

Routt County Planning Director Kristy Winser said the new position will help move short-term rentals from a complaints-driven process to a more proactive one. Currently, each department manages its own application of the code. The position is one the planning department has long requested, she said.

“Having someone who can be in the county driving or being able to respond to complaints more quickly when we get them is something that’s going to be a big game changer for us,” Winser said.

In various community presentations, Winser asked residents how the county should regulate short-term rentals going forward as the county works to create a new master plan. Residents have overwhelmingly said they don’t want short-term rentals allowed.

“People want to continue banning short-term rentals and strengthening our enforcement of them,” Winser said, adding that about 87% of attendees at those meetings felt that way.

Work with platforms

Rather than policing short-term rentals out back, Corrigan said the county is starting conversations with rental platform Airbnb next week to see how the company can help enforce local regulations.

“Handwriting is on the wall — there’s going to be a movement, both state and local, to really reign in some of this activity,” Corrigan said. “I think (Airbnb officials) realize that it’s really in their local interest to start working with local communities.”

Harrington drew a comparison to when short-term rentals were newer and Airbnb was the first platform to work with local governments to collect and remit local sales and lodging taxes. That didn’t happen until there was outside pressure, he said.

In Corrigan’s ideal scenario, Airbnb would remove advertisements for short-term rentals in unincorporated parts of the county. Another option could be a notice to potential tenants that the property is not legally permitted for short term rental on the listing.

“The thing is, we don’t have any authority over their operations, so let’s talk to them,” Corrigan said.

There are also several ongoing efforts at the State Capitol regarding short-term rentals. Some short-term rentals would be reclassified as commercial properties and then taxed as such, a move that could bring millions of dollars to Routt County’s tax districts each year.

A Report of the State Tax Policy Task Force submitted to the Legislature earlier this month, estimated that these tax changes would result in an additional $27 million in property taxes collected by the Summit County School District.

Corrigan said the bill is unlikely to go anywhere this session, but he is pushing for other legislation being discussed that would require platforms to share information about who is renting properties.

The measure focused on platform transparency — which Corrigan says has yet to be drafted — would require all rental platforms to submit information to the state. Then, a centralized database of these rentals could help local governments better manage the problem.

“It’s kind of the first step,” he said. “We can’t really talk about equalizing property taxes or providing lodging or excise taxes or enforcing our zoning regulations until we really know what’s going on there.”

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