On an otherwise calm Wednesday afternoon, in an otherwise nondescript fifth-floor meeting room of the usually docile City Administration Building, 20 people are engaged in what can only be described as a verbal melee.
"I just want to address some things," one woman says defensively. "I do not rent to anybody that's not a family member, I don't rent to large groups..."
"OOOOHHH!" come the cries.
"Bull!" yells one.
"I've never had a golf group, I've never had a party of 120 people," she continues, even as several shake their heads vigorously.
This is the meeting of the Vacation Home Rental Task Force Committee, and tensions, as usual, are running high.
The task force formed about two years ago, says city senior planner Larry Larsen, at a time when the city began receiving complaints from neighbors of people renting their homes short-term to vacationing families and groups. Neighbors complained of noise from rowdy parties, or speeders in their cul-de-sacs.
But the city had a larger concern: There was no zoning code for these businesses, meaning they weren't really legal. What's more, most of them, advertised on the Internet, weren't paying proper taxes and fees. And that constituted a problem, especially as the business model grew in popularity. (Today there are around 100 vacation homes in Colorado Springs, though no one is keeping an official tally.)
City staff decided that creating a task force would be a good way to reach resolution on proper zoning codes, as well as regulations that might bring businesses out of the shadows and ensure neighborhoods weren't disrupted. Neighbors, vacation home owners, and other interested parties were expected to come to a compromise.
"That did not happen," Larsen says.
In December 2009, after endless bickering, the city shut down meetings and defined vacation renting as an acceptable use of a single-family home. Vacation homes were expected to meet all regulations of any home, including noise constraints, parking and traffic generation. The move was meant to patch the situation, not fix it permanently.
"The Vacation Home Rental industry is encouraged to exercise self-regulation to effectively address City and neighborhood concerns and impacts," the document reads. "The Vacation Home Rental use shall be monitored."
Some time passed. Then, a few months ago, interim City Manager Steve Cox was contacted by the Organization of Westside Neighbors, led by Welling Clark, co-owner of west-side bed and breakfast the Holden House, and husband of El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. OWN representatives said they had been receiving complaints from neighbors of vacation rentals. They wanted the issue revisited.
Cox directed staff to revive task force meetings. This time, the city created a draft regulation for discussion. As written, the regulation wouldn't create many roadblocks for homes with four bedrooms or fewer, but owners of larger homes — which tend to generate more complaints — would have to go through a public hearing review and public notification. The city's planning commission would deny, approve, or approve with conditions any large vacation rental. Other requirements include providing abundant parking and posting a sign with the owner's name and number on the front of a rental.
In the April 6 meeting, it appears the new approach has not produced any compromise. At the meeting, neighbors accuse vacation home renters of bringing in rowdy out-of-towners who swear loudly in front of their kids, take up all the street parking, and host rambunctious parties that keep them up on worknights. One said her neighbor owns a 20-bed "events center," not a home.
Another, from the Broadmoor area, commented: "My concern is, I don't want someone coming into my neighborhood who nobody knows. They can't afford to live there. They're just renting."
Not many problems
Owners of vacation rentals say complaining neighbors are snobs who can't stand the idea that a person has rights in using his or her own property. They say they self-regulate: carefully screening clients, laying down strict rules in contracts, and giving out phone numbers to neighbors saying that, as one owner puts it, "they can call for anything — anything."
Finally, they note, code enforcement has received two complaints about vacation homes in the last year — out of some 25,000. Hardly a mandate.
The draft regulation won't be discussed in detail until a May 11 meeting, but the owners are already on the war path, saying their rental homes shouldn't face any different regulations than homes that are rented long-term. Neighbors and their representatives, however, including Welling Clark, are insistent that the homes are commercial businesses and should have to meet regulations similar to hotels, motels, and the 10 or so B&Bs that call the city home. In fact, Clark — who has repeatedly asked for regulations to vacation homes — has insisted that the lodging and B&B industries have input in the drafting of any regulatory language.
That's drawn skepticism from vacation home owners, who point out that Clark might protect his own self-interests by trying to stamp out the competition — some even go so far as to say that Clark has a "conflict of interest." Even Larsen calls the issue "a valid concern."
Clark, however, says any suggestion of impropriety on his part is unfounded, saying OWN got involved only after receiving complaints from neighbors. He adds that he thinks vacation homes are good for tourism and should be allowed with minimal regulation. But some regulation makes sense.
"The bottom line for me is, everybody should be good neighbors," he says. "... There's not a problem with vacation homes as long as they're good neighbors."