Charming cottage or party house? Short-term rentals are at the center of debate in Washington County

Pine Valley is a small unincorporated town nestled in the mountains north of St. George. Upon entering, one of the first things you see is an old pioneer church. Turn right on Main Street and a few blocks down is another pioneer building. The tiny house is one of three short-term rentals Mitzi Sullivan’s family operates in town.

“It was a building that’s been around since… the late 1800s,” Sullivan said. “We think it was one of the wives of one of the settlers – a woman got this together place to itself.

She and her sister, Linda, got into the short-term rental business in the early 2000s. It was a fun way for them to work together and earn extra money. They started in Park City and eventually moved to southern Utah to be closer to family.

The cabin at Pine Valley sleeps two people. There is a living room, a small kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom, as well as a back porch that overlooks the mountains.

“Most people don’t live in little cabins, but it’s kind of fun to escape to a minimalist little cabin where people had their lives 100 years ago,” she said.

Washington County, which includes part of Zion National Park, numerous state parks, and hosts world-famous sporting events, has become a popular short-term rental destination.

County data indicates there are more than 5,500 in all cities and towns. They range from Sullivan’s pioneer cottage to estates that feature multiple bedrooms, elaborate pools, hot tubs, and other amenities. Some are advertised for up to 30 people.

Sisters Mitzi and Linda Sullivan stand outside one of their Pine Valley short-term rentals. They have worked together in the industry since the early 2000s.

The county has received complaints from neighbors about “mega-houses” for things like too many cars, loud parties and bonfires. At a county meeting last fall, Pine Valley resident Rick Peetz described what it was like for him to live next to a short-term rental.

“We were constantly swarmed by a new neighbor every week – between two and ten people living in a two-bedroom house,” he said. “There were one to five cars parked in the driveway and up to four ATVs that they pulled out and drove around their neighborhood endlessly.”

Peetz said at the meeting that he considered moving out because of all the disruption, but in the end the rental landlord sold the property. He said if the owner had lived there he thinks things would have been calmer. Or at least he would have someone to talk to about his complaints.

Julie Davies has written a book and teaches a certification course at Dixie State University and other schools on short-term rentals. She also owns a few out-of-state rentals. She said the industry grew very quickly and people signed up for it without really understanding what it takes to make one work properly.

“I’m tired of seeing our industry disrupted by people who don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care what they’re doing,” she said. “Southern Utah is so beautiful and there are so many things to do. It’s a perfect place for short term rentals… But they didn’t have any real regulations in place.

Saint George short-term rentals prohibited in most areas in 2015. Nearby towns have similar ordinances, but unincorporated parts of the county had minimal regulations until last year.

In May, the departmental commission declared a moratorium on all new short term rentals. They said it was to control growth and develop regulations.

In October, the committee approved stricter rules for these rentals – limiting the size of buildings and requiring people to have business licenses. The biggest sticking point is that they have to be a busy owner.

Commissioner Adam Snow said the aim was to protect residential areas from large and loud groups.

“Generally, I want to let the people who have the most freedom and freedom do what they want, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact their neighbors,” he said. « Short term rental [are] one of those who sometimes have a negative impact on their neighbors.

The homeownership provision is an effort to reduce a small number of bad operators, Snow said, not necessarily his neighbor who operates one down the street or people like Sullivan. He is concerned about people who basically run hotels.

Mitzi Sullivan Rental Guestbook

Mitzi Sullivan checks the guestbook at one of her rentals in Pine Valley. She said she stayed in the industry because of the people she met.

For now, rentals that do not have a business license and are not owner-occupied are run illegally. If a complaint is sent in about a rental, the county said code enforcement officials will work with the operator to bring themselves into compliance.

Davies said she is against the current order because it is “unreasonable and unenforceable”. Now this will hurt people trying to follow the rules instead of stopping the problem. She wants there to be more education for operators, but she hopes the county will make adjustments to the rule.

“Now is a great time for commissioners and city officials to put reasonable regulations in place,” Davies said. “And not get into a situation where it’s so unreasonable that the majority of listings continue to be illegal.”

In Pine Valley, Sullivan’s three properties are grandfathered because she holds a license. But she had drawn up plans for a nearby piece of land she owns in Pine Valley to add another rental. She won’t be able to do anything unless they change the rules.

Sullivan said she understands people’s concerns about the impact of neighbors. She lives in town herself – a few houses away from her pioneer home on Main Street. But she says most operators and guests don’t cause trouble.

“Personally, for us, it’s always the people [who] come here to have some peace and quiet and be in the mountains, be next to nature,” Sullivan said. “That’s mostly why people come here.”

Commissioner Snow pointed out that immediately after the commission passed the stricter order relating to these tenancies, it also approved a feasibility study. They are exploring how to potentially allow non-owner occupied residences to operate, such as including additional fees. He said they were trying to help neighbors on both sides of the fence.

About Michael B. Billingsley

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