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Smith Cabin reignites STR debate for Pitkin County commissioners

smith cabin 2.jpeg
Courtesy of Pitkin County Assessor
The Smith Cabin sits on the back side of Aspen Mountain on Upper Hurricane Road. Commissioners debated on Wednesday whether the home in a Rural and Remote zone district should be issued a short-term rental license.

A short-term rental operation on the back side of Aspen Mountain reignited the debate among Pitkin County commissioners over whether it's appropriate to have STRs in Rural and Remote zone districts.

The zoning is designed to limit development in some pristine and difficult-to-reach parts of the county.

The application for the Smith Cabin property’s license spurred hours of debate among commissioners and an unscheduled executive session.

The board eventually pushed the licensing decision for the home on Upper Hurricane Road until late January.

Commissioners passed an ordinance that went into effect in September requiring STR operators in unincorporated parts of the county procure a license to rent out their unit for less than 30 days at a time.

Most licenses are reviewed and issued by county staff, but part of the regulation requires applications for STRs in Rural and Remote zone districts to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury reiterated her disapproval of STRs in Rural and Remote districts due, in part, to concerns over emergency responses.

“For me, I don't think that STR uses are appropriate in rural or remote zone districts,” McNicholas Kury said. “And I just continue to really have very grave reservations about emergency preparedness up there as compared to other areas of the county and the ability for users to have enough knowledge on how to safely behave and to mitigate danger to the community.”

During the meeting, the owner of the Smith Cabin, Colter Smith, said he and his brother built the cabin in 2007 as a place for his family, and they began short-term renting because the associated costs of the property were so high.

“By no means am I trying to run a commercial operation back here,” Smith said. “I think the most we've ever rented our cabin was 25 nights in a whole year. So it's less than 8% of the time. Just to be clear, I'm not trying to do this every weekend. I've never marketed it through Airbnb or VRBO as a short-term rental. It's 100% word-of-mouth with friends, clients of mine, people that we know.”

But Commissioner Greg Poschman said he “wasn’t buying it.” He added that he felt Smith was misrepresenting the commercial nature of the cabin in order to obtain a license.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Poschman pointed to a number of articles and websites with promotional materials for the cabin.

“You can find a wedding planner called Junebug Weddings out of Texas,” Poschman said. “They're advertising your place and they have about 20 people on their list of credits of who's involved. It's a full-on commercial operation. I'm just looking at this and I think there's a disconnect from how this has been represented to us and what has been happening up there over the years.’”

Poschman also cited an article in Aspen Journalism that described the Smith cabin, although he mistakenly said the article was from the Aspen Daily News. The Aspen Journalism article from September 2021 said Smith’s website promoted a capacity of up to 120 guests for special events.

Smith said they had not had events of that size at the cabin.

The website appears to have been updated and no longer promotes events of that size as of Thursday.

Conditions of Approval

County staff recommended commissioners approve the license with a number of conditions, one of which would prohibit short-term renting during winter months.

They noted that the application demonstrated “adequate emergency services are available” at the property, but that its advertising conflicts with the county code, specifically in regard to special-event permits and the permitted number of guests.

McNicholas Kury proposed an additional condition for the application that special events would not be allowed at the Smith Cabin property.

But the condition was not accepted by other commissioners and the board remained torn on the application.

Poschman recommended continuing the discussion until a later date, an idea that received some pushback from Clapper, who wanted to address the issue before the holiday season.

McNicholas Kury emphasized that approving the first STR in a Rural and Remote zone district warrants more time and consideration, and if approved, winter rentals would be prohibited anyway.

Commissioner Patti Clapper reminded the board multiple times that a license is only valid for one year.

“And we have the authority to revoke a license for any violation of any of the things that have been made public or that are in the conditions of approval,” Clapper said.

Commissioner Steve Child said he had a difficult time telling a property owner what they can and cannot do with their property.

Child, Clapper and Commissioner Francie Jacober were close to approving the license by a slim margin before Poschman asked for a continuance.

If approved next month, the license will include extensive conditions.

Commissioners also denied the STR license application for another property on Little Annie Road, primarily due to concerns over parking.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.