By ALYSSA DE ANGELUS
After flipping through pages of red font and stricken lettering in a July Planning & Zoning Commission meeting, commissioners Matt Deach, Phillip Clark and Gary Hisman lifted their heads to address their thoughts and concerns about proposed changes made by the Civic Affairs Committee to an ordinance governing short-term rentals (addressed as vacation rentals in a previous ordinance).
Despite the absence of commissioners Richard Outcalt and Joseph Rau, a quorum was established and an hour-long deliberation resulted in a motion to forward a draft of Ordinance NO. 18-XX to the Borough Assembly with recommendations to remove several subsections from the ordinance. Two of these removed lines – subsections N and L – included rules preventing short-term rentals from having signs on the rental property and preventing the use of short-term rentals for commercial or social events.
Other major changes to the proposed ordinance included language clarification, which now refers to vacation rentals as short-term rentals, and further limiting conditional use permits (CUPs) within the Municipality of Skagway from a maximum of 25 to 15 non-owner occupied short-term rentals.
Denise Caposey, Skagway resident and property owner, was the only other non-official in attendance. Caposey was particularly concerned by subsections L and N.
However, the P&Z Commission was unable to provide an explanation on those two points for Caposey, because the proposal was heavily revised by Civic Affairs. Instead, the bulk of the meeting was spent collectively brainstorming with Caposey, Assembly Member Orion Hanson and Permitting Official Shane Rupprecht to try and formulate a better proposal on the short-term rental situation.
Frustration on the topic was voiced by several of the commissioners as the July 12 meeting progressed.
“Let me be really blunt, I am tired of it getting kicked back to us,” Hisman said, referring to the failure of the ordinance to pass at the Borough Assembly’s May 17 meeting, which resulted in new revisions for Ordinance NO. 18-XX from Civic Affairs.
Clark and Hanson fell centrally on the spectrum, both agreeing that the “trap of the ordinance” is its detailed and restrictive language.
“My thoughts on it is, it hasn’t really been a problem …with that being said I think this has turned into an ordinance of biblical proportions over something that is not really an issue,” Clark said.
Looking for answers, Clark asked Hanson to shed light on the assembly perspective.
“I have been a part of every discussion, and it’s excruciating,” Hanson said. “We have [the] VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) side of it and we also have the hotel side of it and it is just as loud spoken and just as heated,” Hanson said. “People are just as angry and confused on the hotel side of it. It’s part of the reason it’s been kicked back down because they didn’t know how to vote. It’s very frustrating, exasperating and I don’t know what the answer is.”
After a moment of silence in the chambers, Rupprecht redirected the commissioners’ attention to the general complaints made in past meetings.
“I heard that over and over and over again, everybody just wants a level playing field,” Rupprecht said.
But Hanson argued that there is no level playing field when comparing hotels and motels and short-term rentals. In fact, the discussion became further convoluted after noting similarities in code definitions between the terms “short-term rental” and “hotel.”
“More and more I see this as a giant list of things you can’t do, things you shouldn’t do. That doesn’t level the playing field, it tips it heavily away from the businesses,” Deach said.
Rather than doing nothing, the commissioners voted to forward the draft ordinance with three recommendations to the assembly. Clark managed to reassure his peers of their decision with the rationale that “the best legislation is the kind where everybody hates it.” The motion passed 3-0.
Clark also motioned to introduce a lottery system for CUP’s but it failed to get traction after receiving no second by another present commissioner.
At the time of an interview with The Skagway News, Mayor Monica Carlson had not yet seen the recommended changes made by P&Z.
Carlson says she was the first to officially request short-term rental regulations last fall, hoping to elicit change after her recent election into office. She hopes that directing stricter regulations for short-term rentals will alleviate some foreseeable long-term issues that involve Skagway’s housing shortage.
“If you allow a lot of non-owner occupied houses to be bought up and rented, you take that space away from year-round city employees, clinic employees, people that want, families that want to stay here all year round and so it just makes the housing shortage more intense and difficult for people,” Carlson said.
Carlson said she’s been researching similar issues worldwide, from Spain to Vancouver to Seattle. Carlson says her inspiration to navigate a proactive rather than reactive solution is largely due to witnessing her childhood community collapse after a swarm of airbnbs took charge of her logging community located just outside Mount Rainier in Washington.
“Now there are over 300 of them [airbnbs], but the local people can’t find people to work for them because the employees can’t find an affordable place to live and there is a housing shortage. The National Park can’t find housing for their people close to the park. They are driving 30 to 50 miles away to work at Mt. Rainer because it’s all airbnb, which is problematic, so I see it here if we let it go,” Carlson said.