Summit County is considering broad changes to its zoning code for backcountry properties that would include a ban on short-term rentals, but a draft of the new regulations drew vocal pushback from a small but impassioned group of landowners during a public hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Commissioners voted to table the issue, but the hearing drew clear battle lines between property rights and land preservation.
County staff began working on the changes last year, concerned by some building proposals for backcountry-zoned properties that pushed the envelope on the code's intentionally vague language. While that ambiguity provides leeway for difficult backcountry build sites, some on the countywide planning commission feared it could invite abuses.
"Recently we've started to see more intense proposals which seem to deviate from that purpose and intent," planning director Don Reimer said during the hearing before the Board of County Commissioners. "There are large structures, more impactful structures, some designs that are maybe not consistent with that backcountry character."
A ban on short-term rentals — which wouldn't apply to backcountry ski huts — would be a first for the county government, which unlike Summit's town governments has no rules for listing homes on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. County staff is separately working on short-term rental rules for all unincorporated properties and plans to be finished by April.
The county government has not presented evidence that STRs are currently a problem in the backcountry, but the difficult access to many of those properties could make it unsafe to rent them out for several days at a time to tourists unfamiliar with Summit's rugged areas.
In nearly two hours of public testimony, however, building code changes drew the greatest concern from landowners, who said they've already been chafing under tight zoning restrictions for years.
Drew Goldsmith, who serves on the Countywide Planning Commission and lives off the grid on a backcountry property, told commissioners that proposed rules covering things like roof pitches and square footage limits were too onerous. The outpouring of concern from landowners during a November planning commission meeting should be reason enough to hold off, he argued.
"It was the largest public showing for any county planning commission meeting I've ever attended," he said. "One-hundred percent of the comments were in opposition to these changes. There were no public comments in favor."
The changes would prevent the construction of gleaming, modern-styled buildings that would stick out like sore thumbs in otherwise pristine backcountry areas, Reimer explained. All in attendance seemed to agree that was a reasonable goal. At issue was the broad scope of the code language, which the landowners said would be an overreach.
"I know you've had some applications recently that have sparked an urgency to make some changes to this code," said longtime local Robin Theobald. "But it's been working here for almost 20 years … so maybe the urgency isn't quite what it feels like."
Like several others who spoke during the hearing, Theobald was skeptical that there is even much of a market for STRs in the backcountry, much less a need to ban them. The areas with short-term rental problems — noise, trash and parking — were in towns, not the backcountry, he said.
The landowners prevailed, for now. The county commissioners declined to put the rules to a vote, choosing instead to push the issue to the March 27 meeting. By then, staff will have come up with a proposal for countywide STR rules.
"There was a reason we left a certain amount of vagueness in these rules, and so I appreciate why that was done," said Commissioner Thomas Davidson. "I also appreciate that if you're a planner, it's kind of difficult to know what you're supposed to do. That's something that I need more time to think about."
Commissioners Karn Stiegelmeier and Dan Gibbs agreed, saying they needed more time to digest the scope of the proposed changes. Stiegelmeier in particular, however, seemed open to new regulations.
"Bottom line, we want to protect the backcountry, not just for people who can afford to build in the backcountry but for all of our community," she said. "And I'm very concerned about safety issues. People coming in doing short-term rentals in neighborhoods where there are good streets and good parking don't seem to understand basic rules. So the idea of having them in the backcountry is very concerning."