Jerome voters have started submitting their early ballots in an election that could hinge on a divisive vacation rentals ordinance.
A Wednesday night candidate forum gave incumbents time to defend their votes for or against the issue, and newcomers weighed in on how they would have voted. Every candidate agreed they were against vacation rentals in residential areas, with variations on how this would be accomplished.
Out of the six challengers to appear on the Aug. 26 primary ballot, two were in favor of the ordinance and its respective ballot proposition.
Steve Pontious said he "reluctantly" supports the law.
He said he read Ordinance 405 a dozen times and came to a different opinion each time, but when he read it from the perspective of a potential vacation rental owner, he was daunted by the lengthy conditional use permit process.
"I don't think I'd want to do it," he said.
If the town reverts to the original zoning language, he said, "it's so vague, you're not going to be able to enforce it."
Candidate Frank Vander Horst said Ordinance 405 attempts to protect single-family residences by limiting the number of vacation rentals that can be in their neighborhoods.
"The town of Jerome has legitimized and legalized vacation rentals in the residential zone by issuing them business licenses," he said. "In a couple weeks, the voters will decide."
The vacation rentals issue pushed Douglas Freund to run for council this year. He collected about a fourth of the town's signatures to get the ordinance placed on the primary ballot.
"Ordinance 405 grandfathers a use that was never legal," he said. "Allowing this use in the residential zones and them attempting to draw the line is naive, wishful thinking."
Jerome born and raised, Christina "Alex" Barber said she's against the ordinance. She pointed to safety concerns, the town's fragile infrastructure, and residents' right to get away from the commercial corridor to "let our hair down."
"A balance needs to be created between the busy commercial side of town and the quiet residential areas," she said.
Chad Hembrough has lived in Jerome for eight years, and said he voted against Ordinance 405.
"The ordinance is good, but it can be better," he said. "Obviously, everybody's here to get more information on it."
Hembrough and candidate Abe Stewart said Jerome is populated by renters as well as homeowners, and transient housing in residential zones pulls possible rental homes from an already limited market.
"The existing council has put a lot of effort into (Ordinance 405) to try to protect Jerome," he said. "By reading through this, it's also opened it up to the existing vacation rentals becoming legal."
Councilwomen Anne Bassett and Nikki Check, and Councilman Bill Phinney were the three votes that passed Ordinance 405.
"I am opposed to the proliferation of vacation rentals in Jerome," Bassett said. "We need everyone who is adult and capable to keep Jerome afloat."
Mayor Check said from start to passage, the council spent a year on this issue. Two land use lawyers advised the town that its current zoning rule did not protect neighborhoods looking to limit rentals, and that while not perfect, the law can always be tweaked going forward.
"What is the highest risk that we run by not supporting this ordinance?" Check said. "We get taken to court and we lose, and then we have no ability to defend our town from vacation rentals at all."
Phinney said the ordinance is meant to keep vacation rentals under control in the residential zone.
"I had to vote in favor of it, not because I want vacation rentals, but because I want to limit them," Phinney said.
Councilmen Lew Currier and Randall Hunt voted against the new zoning that creates seven "neighborhoods" where one vacation rental is allowed in each. Currier was last among the 11 candidates to explain his position on Ordinance 405, and his statement of strong opposition was followed by applause from the audience.
"Ordinance 405 is an attempt by council to compromise with people who want to commercialize everything," Currier said. "Compromise destroys zoning."
Hunt said he worked with Phinney to research and draft a sample ordinance, but couldn't vote for it after it was reworked over time.
"I'm not so afraid of litigation as was presented to the council by our counsel," he said. "We can get to a point where we can really satisfy the desires of most of the residents here in Jerome."
In her closing comments, Check said she hopes this isn't a one-issue election.
One audience member asked where candidates stand on the widening income gap between the highest- and lowest-paid town employees, a disparity created by raises and bonuses for the top office holders.
Currier said this was a topic at a Northern Arizona Council of Governments meeting earlier this year when towns were in budget discussions. They talked about one format where the city or town picks how much of a raise to give, like 1.3 percent of the whole budget.
By keeping everyone at the same rate, and dividing the chunk of the budget among all employees equally, "the guy at the top still got a nice piece of change, but the guy on the bottom got an even nicer chunk of change because he wasn't expecting it," Currier said.
Candidates were also asked to discuss annexation, and the possible rezoning of part of Douglas Road.
All were against the commercial zoning part of the question, while candidates like Check said annexation isn't necessarily tied to how Douglas Road is zoned.
"It's responsible and logical to annex our service areas," she said, while noting that the town did say no to annexing large tracts of land in 2007.
"It's interesting and slightly embarrassing that our historic state park is not within town limits," Check said. "I don't feel that they're terribly related."
Currier said annexing any property in that area could come with huge costs to the town later on if any property developers decide to put homes there.
"We have water and they don't," he said. "We have to be careful not to commit to provide utilities to a huge area that some developer might come along and say, hey, we're not part of your town, and now you have to supply us with water."
Bassett said the town could look at annexing up to the town limits of Clarkdale, but said none should be zoned commercial or allow for housing over-development.
Candidates were asked if they'd push for new water and sewer lines, which all agreed was an important issue to deal with as problems arise.
Council members were asked why they supported the construction of a wire rock wall at Fifth and Center Streets. Residents say the gabion is showing damage at its base, well before the 50-year lifespan that was anticipated.
Incumbents said they supported the decision of the design review board, and Phinney said, "Everything becomes historic eventually."
Challengers said they probably would have second-guessed that decision in favor of looking for a solution that was a bit truer to Jerome's historic ambiance.
Wednesday's forum was sponsored by the Verde Valley chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The last day to request an early ballot by mail is Aug. 15, and early in-person voting ends Aug. 22.