The Hubbard County Board discussed the various issues surrounding short-term residential rentals (STR), commonly known as Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBOs), and asked the county planning commission to draft a permitting process.

At their Sept. 8 work session, County Environmental Services Office (ESO) Director Eric Buitenwerf proposed conducting compliance inspections of VRBOs when “advertised occupancy greatly exceeds” the septic system capacity on record.

“If they were found to be noncompliant that would be a tool that we currently have in the tool box that we could employ that would potentially deal with some of these things or at least gather data if there’s truly an environmental issue,” Buitenwerf said.

The county’s septic system ordinance allows for these compliance checks.

Buitenwerf said inspections would likely be “complaint driven,” since ESO does not have the staff to investigate every VRBO identified in the county.

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As more VRBOs develop, they become more disruptive, said board chair Char Christenson, estimating there are approximately 170 in the area. Overloaded septic systems, noise and parking issues are a few of the problems.

“I think the board is under some sort of obligation from the public standpoint and even the resort standpoint that we need to do something,” she said.

Buitenwerf said other counties address VRBOs through a lodging, public health or zoning ordinance.

“Because we've viewed them as a permitted use, thus far, it makes it very difficult to ascertain whether the use is pre-existing or starts after whenever new regulations would be adopted,” Buitenwerf said.

One of the biggest struggles, said county commissioner David De La Hunt, is the permitting process. A conditional use permit (CUP) requires a public hearing, which would overload the ESO, he said. He suggested a self-certification process with a random audit, depending on the county attorney’s advice.

“The other issue is enforcement and compliance,” Buitenwerf said.

De La Hunt said the county doesn’t want to discourage VRBOs “because they are replacing the resorts that are disappearing or being PUD-ed off. We need people to come vacation here. We’re a tourism-dependent economy, but can we do it in a manner that we can control it to some degree?”

He said some minor, commonsense regulations could be established that would “make it more palatable for all.”

County commissioner Tom Krueger said he’d like to strike a balance between property rights and “not being a neighborly nuisance.” Instead of a CUP, he proposed a permitting process.

A permit or license with performance standards would work, Buitenwerf replied, noting the ESO does that for home-based businesses.

Krueger said the permit process could address the number of guests, noise levels, parking, collecting local sales tax and a permitting fee. As a former resort owner, he noted that he had health inspectors and fire marshals visiting annually.

County commissioner Ted Van Kempen agreed the county should do something, but not overstep, which would drive VRBO renters to other counties. He wished the state would develop uniform standards as well. “But I’m not going to hold my breath expecting them to do anything.”

Buitenwerf said ESO would need to add a staff member to handle these permits.

Bonnie Beilke said most residents don’t wish to chase away VRBOs. “We just want to chase the disruptive behavior to the neighborhoods away.”

The board acknowledged that only a small number of VRBO users misbehave.

Shevy Akason, a VRBO property manager and resort owner, said the county is about three or four years behind other cities that have addressed this issue.

Akason said VRBO user demographics are different from resort users, so they are not competing with one another.

“The last thing a vacation rental owner wants is a bad apple that’s going to ruin their property or cause problems with their neighbors. Managers can screen out unruly guests and the county can develop reasonable rules, like no noise after 10 p.m.,” he said.

Neighbors should have the phone number of the VRBO owner or manager, he added, so there is good communication.

Ken Osterberg expressed concern about uncontrolled, large groups, septic overload and creating bedrooms where there aren’t any.

Beilke said she sees too many VRBOs close together on lakes. Creating a 500-foot buffer is “a high priority,” she said.

Not all VRBOs house 15-plus people, said Tim O’Neill. He said his mother-in-law rents her Belle Taine Lake home to two or three couples each summer to pay for property taxes.

The board asked the county planning commission to draft permit/license language for VRBOs.