By Josh Pike | Staff Writer
The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) discussed a report from the county short-term rental (STR) task force at its March 14 work session and, at its meeting later in the day, voted to not reinstate the recently expired moratorium on new STR permits.
The discussion of the report began with County Manager Derek Woodman explaining that the task force initially had 13 members, although two members left the task force in the course of its work, and that the task force had represented a “broad spectrum” of interests and professions.
According to signed nondisclosure agreements obtained by local attorney Matt Roane and provided to The SUN, the members of the committee were Gary Hardin, Kristin McCollam, Laura Easterling, Stuart Scull, Jason Cox, Jennifer Green, Anne Salemo, Michael Heraty, Toni Gallegos, Nicole Holt and Karen Griggs.
In an interview with The SUN, Woodman explained that the two members of the task force who left during its work are Fabienne Van Cappel and Bill Hudson.
An additional nondisclosure agreement signed by Cynda Green was included in documents provided by Roane, with Woodman indicating that she attended the first meeting but did not otherwise participate.
The task force report notes that the members represented “affordable housing, non-resident, STR neighbors, STR owners, the school district, realtors, retail industry, HOA board, restaurant industry, tourism board, and STR property management.”
At the work session, Woodman added that the committee’s work was divided into two phases, with one covering recommendations on changes to processes and the county land-use code and a second phase that will focus on neighborhood density caps.
Woodman explained that the first phase is complete and covered in the report, while the second will begin in April.
He stated that the task force’s first, nonunanimous, recommendation is to not continue the moratorium on new STR permits that the county put in place last year.
Commissioner Veronica Medina clarified that the moratorium had already ended and the BoCC’s decision was whether or not to reinstate it, which Woodman agreed with.
Woodman noted that the intention was to have the task force’s report completed before March, and Commissioner Ronnie Maez noted that the county has been considering additional STR regulations for approximately two years.
Woodman stated that he felt it would be advantageous to hear the commissioners’ viewpoints on two of the task force’s recommendations, including one indicating that the county should reinstate the moratorium if STRs reach a certain level of overall density in the county, although the task force could not agree on what this density should be.
He added that the recommendation is to place this threshold between 8.5 percent and 10 percent of total parcels in the county, although this recommendation was not unanimous and had involved “very contentious” conversations.
Woodman explained that the county is currently between 6.5 percent and 7 percent density of STRs and that the moratorium would be put into place after a threshold was reached to allow the county to consider additional options.
He added that there is a belief that the conditions of 2020 and 2021 drove unnatural rates of growth in STRs and current market conditions will provide a “natural adjustment to the market,” potentially reducing the number of STRs.
Woodman also explained that there are a significant number of unpermitted STRs in the county, with 60-65 prior to the moratorium and approximately 100 currently, a number which could be tracked using new software the county purchased in October 2022.
Due to a lack of accurate data prior to this date, he stated that one of the task force’s recommendations is that the county continue to collect data over the next 12 months without the moratorium and re-evaluate the need for STR regulations after that point.
Woodman noted that the majority of the phase one recommendations involved processes, such as creating a map displaying all properties with STRs and information about each STR displayed, not land use regulations.
He stated that another recommendation that he wanted BoCC input on was the task force’s recommendation that noise monitors be required in all STRs to improve noise ordinance enforcement and the ability to substantiate violations.
He explained that when a noise violation is reported, the person responsible for the property is notified and is expected to go to the property and resolve the complaint, after which, if done successfully, no violation would occur.
Woodman noted that problems occur when the noise violation is reported after it has stopped and there is no way to substantiate if a violation occurred or not.
Medina commented that the county is currently unable to enforce its rules against unpermitted STRs and questioned how it expected to enforce additional rules.
She also stated that she does not feel noise monitors should be the county’s responsibility, noting that if the county held property managers accountable for noise violations, they would install noise monitors to prevent them from incurring fines from violations.
Commissioner Warren Brown noted that there would be no fines or violations if the county is unable to verify the complaints and that noise monitors would allow the county to verify or dispel such complaints.
He added that he is “kind of a fan for this” and commented that requiring monitors would bring a degree of fairness to the validation of noise complaints.
Medina commented that the property manager is required to follow up on the complaint, not the county, and that she does not feel that it should be the county’s responsibility.
Maez stated that he saw both sides of the argument, but that he also saw the situation of people living with noise violations that nothing is being done about because there is no way to verify the violations.
He added that requiring noise monitors would allow a “fair accountability” for both property managers and the county.
Medina commented that she was “not here to change your mind of what you’re thinking,” but that she was trying to point out the “other side” of the issue.
She then highlighted that the county lacks accurate data on STRs in the area and that the county might be “jumping the gun” and putting too many “roadblocks or inhibitors” in place when it should focus on enforcing rules against unpermitted STRs and other rules that are not being enforced.
She added that it is not the county’s responsibility to check noise levels and that the county could put out recommendations on noise monitors, but implementing them is the responsibility of the property manager.
Brown expressed his disagreement with Medina, stating that the sheriff’s office is obliged to investigate noise complaints and protect the quality of life for residents.
He added that he feels it is the county’s responsibility to implement regulations to address quality-of-life issues associated with STRs and give parameters for the operations of STR businesses in the county.
He also commented that the county cannot let other issues “fall by the wayside” even if it is unable to fully address unpermitted STRs and other issues.
Medina commented that the county already has regulations in place to address noise through the county noise ordinance and that it should be the property manager’s choice to implement noise monitors to prevent violations as opposed to the county requiring them.
Maez highlighted that requiring noise monitors would protect both property managers and the community and noted that he sees this requirement as no different than other business requirements.
Maez added that he sees the county as having a responsibility to both the STR operators and neighbors of them and reiterated that he supported requiring the noise monitors, although he could be outvoted.
Medina noted that she was “sure that’s not going to be the case” and that she would be the “lone man standing” on this issue.
County Attorney Todd Weaver noted that current county regulations do not give the county a way to fine property managers, but state law allows counties to adopt ordinances allowing such fines.
Medina commented that property managers should be held accountable to ensure the safety of the neighborhood and the people around them.
Maez commented that the BoCC was considering at its meeting whether to reinstate the moratorium or not, and Medina added that she felt it was necessary to have a plan in place for how to move forward.
Medina also noted that she did not think continuing the moratorium was an option and that she felt the county had enough information to make a decision after hearing two citizen reports on STRs.
Brown commented that the time to make decisions on the report’s recommendations would be when these recommendations are brought to the BoCC through the county land-use regulation process.
He added that the work session was the “pre-discussion” on the items that would be presented to the BoCC in the future and that there is a plan in place, with the meeting being one step of the plan.
Medina highlighted that the BoCC needed to discuss what elements of the recommendations it wants implemented to allow staff to create regulations.
Woodman then returned to his discussion of the report, stating that, prior to the new planning software, there was not a mechanism in place to locate unpermitted STRs and even now that there was, enforcement is handled through the land-use code, which has no mechanism for immediate fines for violations.
He added that, if the county creates an ordinance with fines for violations, it would be processed through the courts, which could create problems since violations could only be prosecuted against the violators, who would be the renters using the STR, and otherwise violations would be dismissed.
He noted that he was unsure how to address this issue, but that he felt there needed to be a better enforcement mechanism than the land-use code due to its unclear fine structure and slow process, in addition to its inability to levy fines against property managers.
Medina commented that the county needs to think “higher level” to provide tools to allow people to do their business more effectively.
Woodman expressed partial agreement with Medina but added that the consequences of not following county rules need to be made clear.
Medina noted that the largest complaint is there are too many STRs and questioned how the county should combat that.
She commented that, in her opinion, the problem would somewhat resolve itself and the moratorium helped with some STRs being sold or converted into long-term rentals.
Woodman highlighted the difficulty of creating regulations that would function for the full range of STR owners and management models, including owners using management companies, neighbors or operating the STR themselves.
Brown commented that there are natural events that are occurring to reduce the number of STRs, highlighting declines in sales tax collections for real estate, rental and leasing.
He added he saw phase two of the STR task force as needing to address neighborhoods with high numbers of STRs.
Maez stated that, in terms of the report provided by the task force, he would like each commissioner to review the report, see what elements they did and did not like, and take this information to Woodman so he could compile it.
Medina asked if this was what the board was doing at the meeting.
Maez agreed and stated that if Medina wanted to go through the entire report at the work session, he was willing to do so.
Woodman noted that the BoCC would address the moratorium at its meeting and that the BoCC would address the recommendations for modifications to the land-use code through the review process for the changes, noting that some of the recommendations are about processes that would not be addressed through the code.
He added that the BoCC needed to see the final documentation of the effect on the land-use code and make a decision on that since the process would otherwise become “very confusing to a lot of people.”
Medina questioned why the guidance of doing what Maez had suggested was not presented to her when she was given the packet so that the BoCC could have been “a few steps ahead” and noted that slow government is partially the county’s fault.
Woodman agreed with Medina and stated that the reason the report went to BoCC when it did was that this was the closest meeting to the end of the moratorium and the BoCC needed to make a decision on it.
He noted that “we all knew” that the other recommendations would involve a modification of the land-use code, which is a process that can’t be sped up beyond accelerating modifications of the code’s wording.
Medina highlighted “for total transparency” that the moratorium had already expired and noted that she and Woodman had already had conversations about the report and that the county had not highlighted to the public that the moratorium had already expired.
“I just feel like we’re wasting everybody’s time because you’re essentially telling me that today all we’re going to do is say whether we’re going to extend it or not,” Medina commented, noting afterward that she meant to say reinstate.
She added that the BoCC “killed the horse” on noise monitors and asked if the BoCC was otherwise not going to discuss the recommendations.
Maez commented that he was willing to spend the day discussing the recommendations, and Medina commented that she was not suggesting that the BoCC attempt to examine the entire document, but she was asking for some clarity on the true intent of the discussion since she expected the BoCC to discuss the report beyond noise monitors.
Maez noted that staff were taking notes on what the BoCC liked or did not like about the recommendations and commented that he was willing to discuss the report further to give staff more data to draft regulations to eventually be brought to the BoCC for final decision.
Brown stated that the BoCC may have gotten sidetracked on noise monitors and commented that much of the information in the report may never come to the BoCC for a decision before asking if it was a waste of time to discuss this information.
He added that he had previously done this process by presenting his views to Woodman, who could then transmit the BoCC’s position to staff to assist them in drafting regulations to present to the BoCC and questioned whether the BoCC should be having in-depth discussions of recommendations that may not come before them for decision.
Medina reiterated her desire for clarity from staff on what is expected of the BoCC to improve efficiency.
Maez and Brown both noted that they had been frustrated by the process when they became commissioners and pointed out the slowness of the decision-making process in the county.
Medina stated that she was talking about expectations from staff being communicated to the commissioners, noting to the audience that she was “so sorry you all have to endure this.”
Maez commented that he appreciates Medina’s vigor.
Following Weaver giving further examples of the statutorily mandated slowness of government processes, Medina noted that this slowness should have been built into the moratorium timeline and Woodman suggested that he was unsure what of the recommendations is land-use code amendments and what is not.
Medina commented that if it is in the report she would make a recommendation.
Later that day at the BoCC meeting, the board unanimously voted to not reinstate the moratorium after hearing public comments both supporting and opposing it.
In other news related to the STR task force, on March 10 District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilson issued an order granting a motion to dismiss the lawsuit between Roane and Woodman concerning the county’s refusal to release the nondisclosure agreements signed by members of the STR task force.
On March 6, the county turned over the nondisclosure agreements to Roane.
The order notes that both parties will bear their own attorney’s fees and costs with the exception of the county being ordered to reimburse Roane for his filing fees of $216.