City Planner Andrew Mack asked the Park Rapids Planning Commission on Monday for advice on where to go with the short-term rental ordinance they had drafted.

The city council returned the ordinance to them for reconsideration on May 2 after a public hearing in which several concerns were raised. The commission then held a second hearing on the topic May 18, with feedback from local realtors prompting them to table the ordinance for further discussion at Monday’s meeting.

Much of the discussion focused on the 500-foot buffer rule between short-term rental properties, which commissioner Robb Swanson said he had questioned from the beginning. He suggested leaving it out of the ordinance and letting law enforcement deal with any nuisance issues that arise.

“Why is that there, if everything is done responsibly, following all the other ordinances and laws, things that our city police department (enforces)?” he asked. “I think it’s unnecessary.”

Johnson recalled that the buffer rule was based on an ordinance from another city where it seemed to work. However, Mack said none of the 12 communities whose short-term rental policies they studied had a buffering standard. “That originated in our discussion,” he said.

Are blocking tactics possible?

Swanson voiced sympathy with the realtors’ concern that the rule would restrict how they can sell property, and he hinted that a homeowner could take out a rental license and a short-term-rental permit simply to block anyone from operating an vacation rental by owner (VRBO) anywhere along 1,000 feet of lakeshore.

When Johnson questioned whether this was possible, Mack confirmed that, with a $100 annual fee for a short-term rental permit and a $55 inspection fee every three years to maintain a rental license, a homeowner could do this.

Mack also clarified that the buffer is defined as the minimum distance between the nearest boundaries of two parcels.

Mack said Hubbard County has faced issues “big time” with VRBOs, and said the county’s most recent tactic was to change the property tax classification of short-term rentals to commercial. He also noted that the city attorney reviewed the draft ordinance with the buffer rule and had no problem with it.

Is ‘party row’ likely?

Regarding the “party row” scenario cited as a reason the buffer rule is needed, Swanson said, “Realistically, how likely is it? … With all the other stipulations and ordinances in there, I don’t see what that mattered.”

Commissioner Bruce Johnson said, based on his experience, the chances of a VRBO becoming a nuisance to neighboring residents are “pretty good.”

“I would rather find out that we had been too restrictive,” said Johnson, “and be able to relax it because it didn’t turn out to be the problem that we thought it was, as opposed to not having it restricted and finding out that we have created a monster.”

He said he felt comfortable with the ordinance as originally drafted and submitted to the city council, and that removing the buffer rule “takes a lot of the control out of it that we would otherwise have.”

Mack noted that the ordinance includes a process for an applicant to request an exception from the buffer rule.

Is there room to compromise?

Commission chair Richard Bradow asked commissioners how they felt about the 500-foot buffer and far they would be willing to compromise on it. Nancy Newman said she would support a minimum buffer of 400 feet. Scott Hocking said he would entertain a buffer of at least two city lots between short-term rentals.

Bradow agreed that he wants a buffer in the ordinance, but he is flexible about the amount. He said he is concerned about VRBO users speeding on residential streets where children play, and noted that the police do not have resources to park on one street to enforce the speed limit.

Liz Stone, the city council’s representative on the planning commission, was not present at Monday’s meeting. Noting that her position on the ordinance has changed somewhat, Swanson said he would like to hear her views about the issue.

Discussion moved on to whether the commission should have a third public hearing about the ordinance at their next meeting, or to wait until the meeting after next in order to have a chance to discuss it with Stone first.

Johnson urged listening to Stone’s views and having the public hearing during the same meeting, in order to move the matter forward. Bradow, however, prevailed on the commission to have one more meeting with Stone before holding a hearing at the following meeting.

“That way we can have a full complement of commissioners, and when we get into the public hearing we’re prepared for it and we’ve got all of our questions answered and we’re able to make a solid recommendation at the city council,” said Bradow.

Mack agreed to talk with the county planner about what direction Hubbard and other counties are heading on VRBO issues.