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Zoning meeting highlights short term rental concerns

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POLSON — No one disputed the fact that short-term vacation rentals are proliferating in Lake County at last week’s hearing in the overflowing county commission chamber. But most people in the room and on Zoom were not putting out the welcome mat – especially in the area under consideration for a zoning variance along Rocky Point and Baypoint roads, northwest of Polson. 

At the conclusion of last Thursday’s public hearing, commissioners voted to adopt the City/County Planning Board’s recommendations, and to deny the Wold family’s request to overlay a zoning variance that would have allowed for short-term rentals in the area along Rocky Point Road, and imposed regulations to govern those rentals. 

Currently, the county has no regulations in place regarding rentals for periods under 30 days. While those rentals are considered commercial businesses, many of them operate in areas zoned residential, and hence violate local zoning codes. But without any regulations in place, the county has no mechanism to monitor this booming industry.  

At the onset of the hearing, Clay Wold, whose family rents their house on Baypoint Road through the summer, told commissioners that at least 500 such rentals are on the market in Lake County, and estimated nearly twice that number could be in operation. Without regulations in place, he said, there’s no way to license or regulate these businesses, or enforce potential violations. 

His father, attorney Doug Wold, helped the county planning department craft regulations that would have applied to the proposed zoning overlay on Rocky Point. They included limiting parking to the rental property and capping the number of cars and trips to and from town, reducing noise from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m., prohibiting special events and parking of RVs, tents or travel trailers on the property, and keeping pets under control.  

A special-use accommodation permit would be required, as would a review of the unit’s septic system, and a zoning conformance permit. A proposed annual fee of $500 would be charged the property owner, which could, theoretically, raise around $250,000 to cover the county’s costs for permitting and enforcement. 

Objections to the zoning overlay were nearly unanimous.

“It’s all folly,” one property owner told commissioners. “We knocked on the doors of every house in the neighborhood and the answer was not just no, but hell no.”

Elaine Meeks offered her own research, asserting that such a zoning change could potentially degrade lake quality, depress property values and increase property taxes. 

“I’m making a plea to take a deeper look at this before it is approved,” she said. “There are too many unanswered questions.” 

Randy Holm, president of the Vista Shore Landowners Association, said his group was unanimously opposed to altering the area’s residential zoning to allow short-term rentals. “Quality of life is what’s important here,” he told commissioners.

“We all bought and built and moved in to this neighborhood under one assumption and because of the desire of one property owner, we’re getting the rug pulled out from under us.”

That was a theme repeated throughout the nearly 90-minute hearing. 

“It seems to me it comes down to property rights and whose rights take priority,” said Nan Macy, who lives near Wold’s property. “Is it the rights of the folks who bought property with the understanding they were buying in a residential neighborhood and could assume some level of peaceful enjoyment of their life on the lake, or is it someone who wants to turn a profit and is not necessarily interested in the ethic of community, of neighborhood, of getting to know one another. Quality of life matters.”

“Please do not balance the regulation of VRBOs (Vacation Rentals by Owners) across the entire county on our neighborhood,” urged another landowner. 

Polson City Commissioner Tony Isbell, whose ZJ Rentals specializes in managing vacation rentals in Lake County, offered a unique perspective. The rentals he manages are permitted by the state, his staff is licensed, and occupancy levels are strictly enforced.

He told commissioners that a $500 annual fee won’t cover the cost of enforcing regulations. Instead, he suggested the commissioners consider a 3% local tax on gross receipts that would only be assessed vacation rentals, and, he predicted, could raise substantially more to cover regulatory costs. 

Several landowners reported problems with the unregulated short-term rentals that do exist in the neighborhood. 

James Dickey, who lives on Baypoint Lane, told commissioners that a nearby vacation rental “has not been a good situation for us for many years.” The home advertises that it sleeps 18, but Dickey has counted myriad camp trailers and well over 30 people at the house. Litter, noise and traffic congestion are among the issues that ensue.

He also said the proposed regulations “make very little sense to most of us,” and like Isbell, doubted that the proposed annual fee would cover enforcement.  “We need one regulation that is enforced and that is no short-term rentals within the proposed zoning area. What’s our quality of life worth?”

One person who spoke in favor of the amendment, while admitting he doesn’t reside in the area it would affect, was John Schreckendgust, who said he recently bought nine acres as a possible site for vacation rentals. 

“What’s the difference between short-term and long-term rentals?” he asked. “You can be stuck with a neighbor you don’t like for 5 years or stuck with a neighbor you don’t like for 2 days.”

Commissioner Steve Stanley, who lived in the area under consideration for 40 years, was sympathetic to homeowners, but warned them, “We’re dealing with things in this county we’ve never had to deal with. This really isn’t a Rocky Point issue, this is a county issue.” 

The commissioners “have to do something to control something that’s already here and is headed our way,” he added, urging, “help us find an answer.”

Commissioner Bill Barron took a practical stance. “This is a project that needs to be continued and fine-tuned,” he said of the proposed regulatory measures. He added that even if the permits raised $250,000, only about $3,500 would come directly from the area under consideration for a zoning change. 

“That’s not enough to fund compliance officers and start a permitting system,” he said. “From a practical point, I don’t think the county can afford to do it yet.” 

Commissioner Gale Decker acknowledged that vacation rentals are “here to stay. If not in your neighborhood, they’re going to be in someone else’s.” People are even buying sheds, towing them onto their property and renting them out with no sanitation facilities, he added, noting the county currently has few tools available to monitor and regulate such enterprises. 

“They are coming, they are here in Lake County, and they aren’t going to quit just because you say no,” he told the crowd. “Once we accept that, we can say ‘how do we go about making it workable for all the people affected by them?’”

On a personal note, Stanley reminded the audience he had lived in the Rocky Point area for a long time. “I have fond memories of what we used to have there.”

“Our world is changing,” he added. “We have to figure out how to cope with it.”


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