Short-term rental records request swamps Steamboat Springs city attorney’s office

Spencer Powell
Steamboat Pilot & Today

The city attorney for Steamboat Springs, Dan Foote, and his legal department have been busy.

About a week ago, Brownstein Hyatt’s Denver-based law office made an open records request to the City of Steamboat Springs for a broad scope of documents relating to short-term rentals.

“(It’s) just about every document that we have relating to short-term rentals,” Foote said to City Council during a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Browstein Hyatt is representing six property owners who are in municipal court for operating vacation home rentals without a permit, two of which applied for legal nonconforming status to be allowed to operate short-term rentals under the recently passed short-term rental overlay zone, according to Foote.

The default response time for open records requests is three business days. In extraordinary circumstances, the city can extend the deadline to 10 business days, but even with the extension, Foote said it will be difficult to assemble, review and filter the thousands of documents being requested. 

“We’re in some discussions with the requesting party on whether we can extend that time period for response,” Foote said. “If that happened, we would need to go to district court and ask a judge to give us some extra time.”

Foote estimates it will take his staff 80 hours to complete the request, but that will ultimately depend on the number of responsive documents his department has to review, which Foote said would be a challenge to complete within 10 working days.

Foote said his department will first have to agree on a set of search terms to identify the relevant documents, most of which will be emails.

“Either (assistant city attorney Jennifer Bock) or I are going to be elbows deep in hundreds, if not thousands of email documents,” Foote said. “People are going to have to search their inboxes and their outboxes for responsive documents,” Foote said to council.

Foote explained that he and Bock will then receive a large pile of documents for review and weed out everything that is protected by attorney-client privilege.

“Some of the documents are going to be relating to open investigations into municipal court cases and we wouldn’t disclose those either,” Foote said. “There are a number of filters that we have to apply to these documents and that’s really what’s going to take most of the time.”

The emails from the city’s email accounts will be managed by the legal department, but Foote explained to City Council that they would have to provide any relevant communications from their own private devices themselves, if any.

“But we’re not there yet because we haven’t selected your emails yet,” Foote explained.

The short-term rental overlay zone was passed earlier this summer and places limits on the number of short-term rentals allowed in certain areas of town and prohibits issuing new short-term rental licenses across most of Steamboat.

“No decision has yet been made on those applications, but it’s pretty clear that they did not have the requisite vacation home rental permits.” Foote said. “I don’t want to get ahead of anything here, but I have a hard time imagining how we could approve those non-conforming registrations.”

Under the previous vacation home rental permit system, which was abandoned in favor of the newly enacted short-term rental licensing requirements, owners of single-family homes and duplexes were required to obtain permits to rent out their properties for periods less than 30 days.

The newly enacted restrictions allow lawfully operated short-term rentals to be grandfathered in — even in the restricted zones — as long as the owners can show proof of occupancy in the past year and prove they’ve been paying taxes. Property owners who operated short-term rentals with valid vacation home rental permits would also be grandfathered in, but those who operated single-family homes or duplexes without a permit, even if they paid taxes, would not qualify for legal nonconforming status.

“These are all duplex units that in order to have been lawfully established, their use would have been required to obtain a vacation home rental permit, and it’s pretty clear that these property owners did not,” Foote said.

Foote said he was unsure what penalties the city would incur if the records request deadline isn’t approved for an extension, either by the requesting party or the district judge, saying that the records request would be complete before the first appearance in court. 

Back in June, the city switched to using NextRequest for handling open records requests, which allows individuals to review previously requested information without submitting a new request, so the documents being provided to Brownstein Hyatt will be made available to the public without any fees. 

All in all, Foote knows that fulfilling records requests, even when it seems overwhelming, comes with the job. 

“I don’t want it to come off as though I’m being critical of this law firm,” Foote said. “They’re doing their jobs; I don’t have any beef with them. It’s just a big request.”

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