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The city of Aspen is developing a short-term rental policy. There is a lot to consider.

Aspen City Council is considering its options as it attempts to come up with a robust policy to regulate short-term rentals.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
Aspen City Council is considering its options as it attempts to come up with a robust policy to regulate short-term rentals.

On Dec. 8, Aspen City Council unanimously passed Ordinance 27 in a special meeting and declared an emergency.

The emergency? The lack of affordable housing for long-term residents and employees in Aspen, as well as the impact of construction and development in the city on climate change.

The city’s solution? First, a temporary pause on the issuance of permits for free-market residential developments, set to expire in June. Second, a pause on issuing vacation or short-term rental permits — set to expire in September.

The response to Ordinance 27 was immediate and contentious. At the City Council’s December meeting, the public comment period lasted about 90 minutes, with most people expressing their disapproval.

“This could have a devastating effect on our community," said Bill Guth, a real estate agent in Aspen.

Alexandra George, chair of the Aspen Board of Realtors, said, “I have yet to hear anyone who’s in favor of this moratorium.”

“I’m very disturbed by the approach that you guys have taken. There is no emergency,” said Judd Clarence, a real estate agent and contractor in Aspen.

Ashley Chod, another real estate agent, said, “I feel if you pass this emergency ordinance tonight, you’ll lose my trust, and I believe you’ll lose all their trust, too.”

“It's disappointing,” said Grant Purcell, another realtor.

It even prompted a lawsuit from the Aspen Board of Realtors. As of March 8, a Pitkin County District Court judge had not yet issued a ruling on ABOR’s request to strike down the moratorium.

Because Aspen did not previously have a concrete policy for short-term rentals in place, the biggest work facing city staff is crafting a policy that both addresses the public’s concerns and allows the city to actually regulate short-term rentals in the way it sees fit.

First and foremost, the city needs to define what a short-term rental is and then codify it in the land-use code. Once it is defined, it can be regulated.

Right now, a short-term rental is defined as a residence occupied fewer than 30 days. They’re often listed on websites such as AirBnb and VRBO — but there are many variations. A short-term rental could be a homeowner who lives in their Aspen home but rents it out when they go on vacation a couple times a year. It could be second-home owners who occupy their homes only during the ski season and rent it out when they’re not using it. It could be a condo-tel or a broker-managed property or a home whose sole purpose is to be a vacation rental for tourists.

These little distinctions cause big problems for people — such as city development director Philip Supino — who hope to nail down a straightforward policy on how to regulate them.

“As soon as we start developing regulations that try and make these distinctions, we’re going to miss people, and we’re going to have scenarios that the regulations don’t respond to,” Supino said. “And that gets challenging from an administrative standpoint. It gets challenging from a legal standpoint.”

A route that other ski towns have taken is zoning. The city could use zoning regulations to control where vacation rentals proliferate and set limits on how many exist per capita. It’s a strategy that Supino said has worked well for those municipalities.

“Zoning is the tool. More than anything else, it is the tried-and-true tool for being able to introduce that level of control in terms of how a use proliferates in a town and where it’s located,” he said.

The moratorium has been met with a lot of pushback and confusion. This has led to some frustrating exchanges, including one between part-time Aspen resident Kathy Bender and Mayor Torre.

“If I had any inkling that I wouldn’t be able to do rentals in my property, I never would have bought it,” Bender said.

“Kathy, so, do you have your vacation-rental permit for your properties?” Torre said.

“I do,” she replied.

“So you are still able to continue to rent your properties,” Torre said.

“I don’t understand,” Bender said.

Aspen city planner Garrett Larimer said people want to be involved in the process, but they don’t always know what’s going on.

“I think there’s been good engagement — people have been communicating some opinions, asking questions, asking how they can get involved,” he said of the online feedback.

And a lot of those questions are similar to Bender’s: Can I still rent my property? What’s the difference between a short-term rental and a vacation rental? (There is no difference.)

We’re still a way off from September. So, the city has time to use the information and feedback to answer questions and develop a robust policy that works for everyone in Aspen — transient and long-term residents alike.

But there are a lot of potential avenues to be explored. Some of those items won’t have answers by September. For example, a potential tax on short-term rentals, which would require a public vote. Or an impact fee, which would require a costly and lengthy study to accurately determine what the exact impacts of short-term rentals are, and what the appropriate fees might be.

Publicly, the city has parsed through even fewer details when it comes to the pause on residential development.

As Torre points out, it won’t be a simple one-size-fits-all solution.

“It’s a multipronged approach,” he said during a City Council work session. “It’s not just one avenue of trying to mitigate for the impacts or getting the best results for the community. So, I see us as probably implementing a couple different tools here.”

For city officials parsing through these decisions — including City Council member and longtime Aspen resident Rachael Richards — it’s not just a job, it’s personal.

“I think," she said, "this is the last question of whether Aspen is a community or is it a commodity? And do we all just take our little piece of the commercial activity out with us, and say we’re not damaging the community?”

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.