Vacation rentals an 'epidemic' problem in county

The Town of Jerome has debated the issue of vacation rentals for nearly two years. VVN/Vyto Starnskas

The Town of Jerome has debated the issue of vacation rentals for nearly two years. VVN/Vyto Starnskas

Yavapai County and many of its cities and towns are staring into the vortex of a zoning nightmare. Dave Williams, land use supervisor for the county, says the problem of illegal short-term rentals is epidemic and has gone "beyond enforcement."

The county granted a use permit for only four such facilities in 2014, but Williams estimates that over 1,000 now operate illegally and are creating headaches for neighbors and planners.

Members of the Yavapai Planning Commission Wednesday agreed they need to study the problem and perhaps create regulations.

"People not familiar with an area will drive into neighborhood and knock on doors to try to find the right house or they can't find a key. Visitors often have no respect for an area or they are not aware of local conditions and codes. One group rented near the blazing Slide Fire last year in Oak Creek Canyon and still thought it would be OK to light up a huge bonfire on the rental property."

Williams showed a map of the Village of Oak Creek, which is now estimated to have 50 vacation rentals that are operating without a permit. He says he fields three to four complaints every week from that area alone. Vacation rentals, he said, are set up throughout the county in tourist areas from Prescott, Page Springs, Red Rock Loop, to Prescott, Walker, and Groom Creek.

It's a proliferation that has raged in recent years.

Williams says there are two types of owners who list their properties for less than 30 days: people who are struggling to get by and then there are investors who take your money and give you a key to their house.

The county allows the simple rental of a home for longer than 30 days as a "matter of right," but no home or guest house may be rented for less than 30 days, unless a use permit is granted and then only in a commercial district not in residential zones.

This "new commercialism," as the planning commission called it Wednesday, is driven by several popular websites including VRBO, AirB&B, CraigsList and more. People are lured by website ads that claim: "Earn up to $63,000 per year by renting your house as a vacation rental."

The websites facilitate everything, the booking, payments and advertising on line. The owner just gets you the keys and cleans up afterward. Williams says these properties are different than a bed and breakfast in which an operator is onsite.

But, Williams says, the website will bury a disclaimer that advises that approvals or a permit may be needed and that some facilities may not be permitted at all.

The land use supervisors said neighbors complain about outsiders creating noise and for using the homes for weddings and receptions. One property might be designed for a family of four people, and then you suddenly drop 50 people there for a weekend wedding. There is not adequate parking, the septic system can't keep up, and there are visitors unfamiliar with the neighborhood local codes.

"Sometimes, they think it is OK to discharge firearms. After all, they are in a forest, despite having neighbors next door," said Williams

"One group brought a bunch of Harleys and were doing doughnuts in the road."

Board member Curt Lindner said, "The rights of the residents are paramount." Since the county is changing, this is an item that should go before a joint meeting of the Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Planning Board Chairman Tom Reilly noted, "Quality of a neighborhood is important. We should come up with criteria or a checklist of what needs to be considered when faced with a request for approval.

"We need to be able to both accommodate the new commercialism and also accommodate the surrounding residents' rights."

Williams agreed that neighborhood contact is important. "What kind of neighbors do we want? Is there a local contact to respond immediately? How are we going to minimize the potential for negative impacts?"

He says the problem of vacation rental complaints is among the top 3 issues facing the county department.

The two boards will meet in about six months, while the department continues to collect data to present.

Jerome has been exploring the vacation rentals issue for nearly two years, with an ordinance passed by council in October 2013 and then reversed by a November 2014 voter referendum.

The nixed ordinance would have split the community into seven neighborhoods and allowed one vacation rental in each.

Recently-elected Vice Mayor Douglas Freund chaired the Save Residential Jerome committee leading up to the election, and has argued that the original zoning code should be upheld.

In July 2014, Freund said because vacation rentals are not specifically permitted in residential zones, they are considered prohibited.

How that will be enforced, however, remains unclear.

Councilwoman Nikki Bagley recently resigned for family reasons, but was the only member to say during a Jan. 13 meeting that the current zoning code was not sufficient to address the matter.

To replace her, Town Manager Candace Gallagher is asking interested residents to submit letters of interest by Feb. 2.

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