Summit County eyes banning short-term rentals in backcountry district
A proposed rewrite of county planning regulations would ban short-term rentals and bed and breakfasts from operating in Summit County’s Backcountry Zoning District, but not everyone is resting easy with the idea.
County planning head Don Reimer describes the effort as a natural response to the uptick in short-term rentals, but admits the proposal drew “a fair number of comments” during a Nov. 6 hearing before the county planning commission.
Critics of the ban describe it as a “stripping” of property rights, for which there’s been little public notice, they claim. Additionally, there seems to be some disagreement about how many property owners could be affected, with one concerned citizen saying the county has pegged the number around 50 but a local real estate agent put it “more like 150.”
“Our property, Dry Gulch, is not impacted by these changes as we have negotiated (a) Court Settlement that can not be re-legislated,” wrote one of those critics, John Cooney, in a Saturday email. “I am trying to be an advocate for these property owners, many who are locals planning to build on their property one day.”
The Backcountry Zoning District is loosely defined by county code as some of the more remote areas in Summit County, generally characterized by a lack of maintained roads, little to no utilities and sparse development, if any.
These areas can contain sensitive ecosystems, such as wetlands, steep slopes and sub-alpine forest, in addition to historic mining remnants, high ridges and alpine peaks — many of the geographic features that give Summit County its postcard-like views.
The goal of having restrictive rules in the backcountry zone — as it’s explicitly written into county code — is to retain “the relatively undeveloped character” of these places while allowing for some low-impact developments.
Code mandates any development patterns, including the scale and impact of a project, must be “harmonious” with the backcountry. Some land uses the county does allow in the zone include mining by permit, controlled timber harvests, and packing and outfitting operations that are limited to 2,400 square feet of floor space and forbidden from serving more than 20 people a day.
Boat and vehicle storage, single-family homes and Nordic ski huts — the homes and huts also are maxed out at 2,400 square feet of floor area — are similarly allowed per county regulations, as is the construction of new trails by permit.
The county’s planning director describes the evolution of the Backcountry Zoning District as a tradeoff, with roads playing a key role in how the zone came to be what it is today. According to Reimer, much of Summit County had been zoned A1 for agriculture uses before the creation of the backcountry zone not too long after the turn of the 21st century.
At the time, the county required property owners to go through a non-conforming parcel plan, Reimer recalled, explaining that meant if they wanted to build, those owners had to perform other improvements, like upgrading the roads.
Many people thought those rules were too burdensome for the backcountry parcels, Reimer said, and others didn’t want upgraded access to the backcountry at all because they feared the impact it could have on mountain activities, like cross-country skiing and hiking.
Ultimately, the county tried to strike a balance between the property owners who were being required to make the upgrades many people didn’t want and measured development in these areas. The county did this by putting limits on structure sizes and land uses, while nixing the once-required upgrades, Reimer said.
Another part of the reasoning behind the push to keep the backcountry largely as it is, according to the code, is many of these backcountry areas are not suitable for regular, everyday traffic without upgraded infrastructure, namely the roads.
Backcountry roads, where they do exist, generally aren’t being plowed in the winter, and even access for emergency vehicles is not guaranteed, according to county code. Reimer said the intention always has been to keep the backcountry “very seasonal.”
According to Reimer, at the same time the county was defining the Backcountry Zoning District, they identified a number of commercial uses “not consistent” with the backcountry area. Among them were hotels and lodging.
Fast-forward 15 years, he continued, and the rise of websites like Airbnb.com and VRBO.com has sparked the need to update code to include short-term rentals and bed and breakfasts, which Reimer sees in much the same light he does hotels and other lodging operations.
“Same use, just smaller scale,” he said, adding some short-term rentals advertise they can sleep more than a dozen people and he’s already seen problems with over-used septic systems, just to name one.
Reimer was also careful to say the proposed write, which can be found on the county’s webiste, is still taking shape after the planning commisson hearing, and he’s uncertain exactly how it might be tweaked going forward.
He said one of the comments to emerge from the November hearing was the county should consider addressing short-term rentals across Summit County, not solely in the backcountry zone.
“Their recommendation was not to do it here, but to do it across all zones rather than one zone at the time,” Reimer said.
However the county does decide to precede, Reimer said he thinks the appetite exists to take up the issue.
A hearing for the proposed rewrite before the Board of County Commissioners is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 23, he said. The county commissioners meet at 1:30 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays monthly on the third floor at 208 E. Lincoln Ave., Breckenridge.
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