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The long-term future of short-term rentals in SW Colorado

Durango clamped down on vacation rentals six years ago – might La Plata County do the same?
Roland Mora was one of the first people to receive a permit for a short-term rental in Durango, he said. The city currently has 125 permitted short-term rentals. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

There is a problem mountain town residents are all too familiar with: short-term rentals owned by out-of-state investors cause property values to skyrocket while they shrink the amount of housing available to the local workforce.

Luckily, Durango and the communities scattered around the San Juan Mountains have yet to succumb to this dynamic. This is thanks, in part, to the city’s strict code regulating vacation rentals.

“We are on the top end of the more restrictive communities out there for vacation rentals and I think we like it that way,” said Bryce Bierman, a planner with the city who oversees the vacation rental permit program.

Of course, not every owner of a vacation rental lives out of state.

Roland Mora lives in his home on East 4th Ave. and rents out a separate Airbnb unit in the back.

“The money that we make on it helps to pay down our mortgage quicker,” he said. “Now we have a daughter in college, definitely helps to supplement those payments. It's a huge bonus for us.”

Short-term rentals, defined as anything rented for fewer than 30 days, must be permitted in the city, and they’re only allowed in certain areas.

In two established neighborhoods – EN-1, which is the “grid” east of East 3rd Ave. and south of 15th St., and EN-2, which includes the blocks west of Main Avenue north of 16th St. – the number of allowed STRs is tightly capped.

“I don't think vacation rentals are something (where) we want to … have a really broad and lax program and then have to react to a problem,” Bierman said.

The short-term rental above the garage owned by Roland Mora in Durango. Mora said the rental helps pay his mortgage and his daughter’s college tuition. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

According to an industry data analyzing tool, there are 1,250 STRs operating in Durango and the Animas Valley, reflecting a 9% increase over the past year. Bierman said there are 125 licensed vacation rentals in Durango.

Mora applied early, just after the permitting system went into place in 2017. And although he said the business takes quite a bit of work, the added income is welcome.

La Plata County officials are quick to recognize the importance of vacation rentals. In some cases, they make living in the area affordable. The people who rent the units patronize businesses and bring in welcome tax dollars. But STRs can also exacerbate an existing housing shortage.

“It's a huge bonus for us,” Roland Mora said of his short-term rental. La Plata County is beginning to consider following in the city’s footsteps and regulating vacation rentals. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For that reason, the La Plata Board of County Commissioners have begun early-stage conversations on regulating short-term rentals.

Officials say the conversations are in their infancy and that residents are unlikely to see substantive change until 2024.

“We're in a study mode and we're looking at the tools available to us,” Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said.

The results of a recent study, which was presented to the Board of County Commissioners in August, found that most respondents live near a short-term rental.

More than three out of five respondents said they would support regulations in unincorporated areas of the county, such as requiring operating permits, capping the number of STRs allowed and requiring an annual fee from operators.

“There's a balancing act,” Porter-Norton said.

But, in accordance with the adage that one must walk before they run, the county may begin by pursuing a noise ordinance – a noteworthy addition to the notably hands-off land use regulations.

This might be welcome news to Alex Navarre and his neighbors in the Animas Valley.

There, in an unincorporated part of La Plata County, vacation rentals such as the one adjacent to Navarre’s home go essentially unregulated. The 3,000-square foot Airbnb near his house, which advertises five bedrooms and offers capacity for 10 guests, has created a brewing conflict.

“I have a safety sensitive job which requires sleep, and it's to the point where you essentially are at the mercy of the (guests),” he said. “However disruptive they are, that's what you're gonna get. You can't call the police, because there's no noise ordinance.”

The city and the county both use data-scraping services in certain cases. The city uses a service to catch unlicensed STRs, and the county uses one to ensure that operators are paying their lodgers tax.

Mark Kiefer, a Texas resident who owns the vacation rental near Navarre’s home, said he would not oppose a noise ordinance. He said the house already has sound-monitoring devices and a responsive management company, which he is in contact with weekly.

And Navarre has no problem with the concept of vacation rentals.

“I'm not against STRs, overall, I support them,” he said in an email to The Durango Herald. “STR's can provide great opportunities for local community members, when regulated properly.”

Although the house is currently on the market, Kiefer said he would have no problem with a permitting process in the county.

“I think that's totally fine,” he said. “Everyone has a permitting process usually.”

Porter-Norton said staff will begin to explore a potential noise ordinance, followed by other options, including requiring licensing of STRs or even, potentially, a cap on the number of STRs allowed.

“What we envision is doing continued information gathering and then doing public outreach when we're ready to have the robust discussion,” she said. “Really, it starts with licensure or not. So we anticipate that discussion will happen in 2024.”


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