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Whitefish considers tightening short-term rental rules

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | August 1, 2021 12:00 AM

The Whitefish City Council is exploring ways to further regulate short-term vacation rentals as they are blamed for contributing to a dearth of affordable housing in the city, among other issues.

"Short-term rentals are having a significant impact on the landscape of our town," council member Ben Davis said during a work session last week. "I don't have any moral issue with short-term rentals, but it's the collateral impacts on the town that rubs me. There is a whole economy in short-term rentals and people making money on it, and there are a lot of people in the community being impacted by it in terms of high housing prices and traffic."

During the work session, the council directed city staff to draft a proposal that would require long-term rentals to be rented for 90 days or longer.

City Manager Dana Smith suggested the issue return to the council for another work session with multiple options being presented. A few other ideas to regulate short-term rentals also came forward, including requiring the license number to be listed in the rental advertisement, increasing enforcement of illegal short-term rentals and capping the total number of short-term rental units allowed in the city.

There are roughly 260 short-term rentals licensed within Whitefish city limits. A study by the University of Montana found that Whitefish had the highest concentration of vacation rentals in the state in fall 2020, at about 1,000 in the 59937 ZIP code.

City code defines short-term rentals as visitor accommodations of less than 30 days, and such rentals are only allowed in certain zoning districts of the city — general business, resort residential and resort business districts. Such rentals also are required to register with the city and obtain a business license.

The city's Sustainable Tourism Management Plan Committee recently asked the council to address the issue.

"This is a pretty big issue — it's gutting our community," said Lauren Oscilowski, who chairs the committee. "We need housing for our workforce and maintaining the integrity of our neighborhoods."

Mariah Joos, who also serves on the committee, said tackling the issue of short-term rental housing was a top priority.

"This last year really pushed this issue forward," she said. "We need leaders on this issue. The community is in desperate need to be on a different path than we're on."

Whitefish in 2018 issued permits for 103 short-term rentals, and in 2019 there were about 160 short-term rentals.

The committee proposed requiring long-term rentals to be designated for a minimum of 90 days to attempt to eliminate units that are illegally functioning as short-term rentals. Some units are reportedly being rented for 30 days at a time, or for portions of a month and then left empty, so as to not appear they are operating as vacation rentals.

Several council members seemed to favor the idea, though officials noted some potential shortfalls.