Littleton City Council unanimously passed a short-term rental licensing ordinance on Nov. 17, though councilmembers acknowledge many issues must still be dealt with.
The new ordinance represents a major step in regulating short term rentals — often rooms in private homes, or entire houses, rented through sites like Airbnb or VRBO — since city council narrowly shot down a stricter ordinance in early 2019.
Among other rules, the new regulations cap the number of guests at two per bedroom to a maximum of eight per dwelling, require at least two off-street parking spaces, and require owners to provide guests and neighbors with contact information of someone who can respond to problems within two hours.
The ordinance does not address the stickiest issues surrounding short-term rentals, however, such as whether owners must live in Littleton or how many licenses one owner can have.
The ordinance creates separate types of licenses for short-term rentals that are the primary residence of the owner versus those where the owner lives off-site, though in their current form there is effectively no difference between the two license types.
Council is slated take up those issues in 2021 as part of the Unified Land Use Code (ULUC) process, a long-term revamp of city zoning and codes that represents the culmination of the Envision Littleton process, City Manager Mark Relph said at the Nov. 17 meeting.
The city currently has 47 licensed short-term rentals, said Jennifer Henninger, the city's community development director, though a search of sites like Airbnb shows the total number is somewhat higher.
City council previously labored over a short-term rental ordinance in 2018, after a citizens' group asking for greater regulation unveiled that the city had little oversight of such rentals. The ordinance failed by a vote of 4-3 in January 2019, with several councilmembers objecting to a clause that required the rentals be the owner's primary residence.
Following the failure of the 2019 ordinance, city officials convened a task force of short-term rental owners and citizens calling for stricter rules.
Members of the task force expressed concern at the Nov. 17 meeting that many of their recommendations to the city didn't make the cut in the new ordinance.
Angela Engel, who owns a short-term rental near downtown, said she was concerned the ordinance didn't require owners to be Littleton residents and didn't limit the number of licenses per owner.
“If we limited licenses to two per person and required Littleton resident owners, we're more likely to have owners who have an investment in the community,” Engel told council. “Someone from Texas or Florida could buy licenses and have unlimited short-term rentals. Both sides of our coalition wanted to preserve our sense of community.”
Dan Radulovich, who first brought the issue to council in 2018 after bad experiences with a “party house” near his home, echoed Engel.
“One of our biggest ideas was requiring Littleton citizenship,” Radulovich said. “That was the first thing we came to consensus on... Still, this ordinance is better than nothing, which is what we currently have.”
City attorney Reid Betzing, however, said limiting the number of licenses and requiring Littleton residency is easier said than done.
Littleton residency gets tricky because there are so many types of property ownership, including properties owned by trusts, LLCs, multiple owners or by married couples in which one partner lives outside the city, Betzing said. Similarly, barring corporate ownership gets murky because it's easy for individuals to set up multiple LLCs.
“This is our first thin slice at this,” Betzing said. “We have an opportunity going forward to see how this licensing framework works. What needs to be added?”
Betzing said future changes could include rules for which zoning districts allow short-term rentals, or which ones would require the rentals to be the owner's primary residence.
Some citizens who commented on the ordinance said they were eager for stricter regulation.
Tom Grant, who serves on the Kensington Ridge homeowners association board, said the board recently discovered a house in the neighborhood had quietly been converted to a short-term rental.
“Without consulting our surrounding neighbors, the owners basically created a boarding house,” Grant said. “Owner occupied homes are the secret sauce to creating stability in a community through pride of ownership, and that improves quality of life for everyone in Littleton.”
Resident Bill Barrett said the house next-door to his recently became a short-term rental, causing a lot of problems for him and his wife.
“It's essentially a mini-hotel,” Barrett said. “We've seen screaming, music, parties, drug use, drug delivery and fighting.”
Barrett said the owners hired a property management agency to oversee the property, and said the company initially demanded photos or videos of offending behavior, would only reply to text messages, and would only respond by calling the guests and telling them to keep it down. The agency has since stopped responding to his texts, he said.
“This hotel has changed our lives, cheapened our quiet and friendly neighborhood, and takes up too much thought in our minds,” Barrett said.
Councilmember Pat Driscoll said he knows the ordinance doesn't fix everything, but is glad to get the ball rolling.
“We've been going around and around on this for close to two years, and this is a great first step.”
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