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Charming cottage or party house? Short-term rentals are the center of debate in Washington County

Mitzi Sullivan cottage
Lexi Peery
Mitzi Sullivan runs the “Pine Valley Settlers Cottage” in unincorporated Washington County. New regulations enacted by the county last year requires owners to live on site, unless they had a business license before the change.

Pine Valley is a small unincorporated town nestled in the mountains north of St. George. Driving into it, one of the first things visible is an old pioneer church. Turn right on to Main Street and a few blocks down is another pioneer building. The small house is one of three short-term rentals Mitzi Sullivan’s family operates in town.

“This was a building that's been here since … late 1800s,” Sullivan said. “We think it was one of the wives of one of the settlers — one wife got this whole place to herself.”

She and her sister, Linda, got into the short-term rental business in the early 2000s. It was a fun way for them to work together and pick up some extra cash. They started in Park City and eventually moved to southern Utah to be closer to family.

The cottage in Pine Valley sleeps two guests. There's a living room, a small kitchen, one bedroom and a bathroom, plus a back porch that looks out to the mountains.

“Most people don't live in little shacks, but it's kind of fun to escape to a little minimalist shack where people had their lives 100 years ago,” she said.

Washington County, which includes part of Zion National Park, numerous state parks and hosts world-famous athletic events, has become a popular short-term rental destination.

Data from the county say there are over 5,500 of them in all the cities and towns. They range from Sullivan’s pioneer cottage to estates that boast several bedrooms, elaborate pools, hot tubs and other amenities. Some are advertised for up to 30 people.

Mitzi and Linda Sullivan cottage
Lexi Peery
Sisters Mitzi and Linda Sullivan stand outside one of their Pine Valley short-term rentals. They have been working in the industry together since the early 2000s.

The county has received complaints from neighbors about “mega-homes” for things like too many cars, loud parties and bonfires. At a county meeting last fall, Pine Valley resident Rick Peetz described what it was like for him to live next to a short-term rental.

“We were constantly invaded by a new neighbor every week — between two to 10 people living in a two bedroom house,” he said. “There were one to five cars parked in the driveway and as many as four ATVs that they brought out and drove incessantly around their neighborhood.”

Peetz said at the meeting he was considering moving because of all the disturbances, but in the end the rental owner sold the property. He said if the owner had lived there, he thinks things would have been quieter. Or at least he would have someone to talk to about his complaints.

Julie Davies wrote a book and teaches a certification course at Dixie State University and other schools about short-term rentals. She also owns a few rentals out of state. She said the industry grew very quickly, and people signed up for it without really understanding what it took to run one properly.

“I'm tired of seeing our industry get disrupted by people who either don't know what they're doing or don't care about what they do,” she said. “Southern Utah is so gorgeous and there's many things to do in it. It is a perfect place for short-term rental … But they didn't have real regulations in place.”

St. George banned short-term rentals in most zones in 2015. Nearby cities have similar ordinances, but unincorporated parts of the county had minimal regulations until last year.

In May, the county commission enacted a moratorium on all new short-term rentals. They said it was to get a handle on the growth and to develop regulations.

In October, the commission approved stricter rules for these rentals — limiting the size of buildings and requiring people to have business licenses. The biggest sticking point though is that they have to be owner occupied.

Commissioner Adam Snow said the goal is to protect residential areas from large and loud groups.

“Generally, I want to let people who have the most freedom and the most liberty to do what they want, as long as it doesn't negatively impact their neighbors,” he said. “Short-term rentals [are] one of those that does sometimes negatively impact their neighbors.”

The owner-occupied provision is an effort to cut down on a small number of bad operators, Snow said, not necessarily his neighbor who operates one down the street or people like Sullivan. He’s concerned about the people who are essentially running hotels.

Mitzi Sullivan rental guestbook
Lexi Peery
Mitzi Sullivan looks at the guest book at one of her Pine Valley rentals. She said she has stayed in the industry because of the people she’s met.

For now, those rentals that don’t have business licenses and aren’t owner-occupied are being run illegally. If a complaint is sent in about a rental, the county said code enforcement officials will work with the operator to get into compliance.

Davies said she’s against the current ordinance because it’s “unreasonable and unenforceable.” Now it will hurt people who are trying to follow the rules instead of stopping the problem. She wants there to be more education for operators, but she’s hopeful the county will make adjustments to the rule.

“This is the perfect time for the commissioners and the city officials to set some reasonable regulations in place,” Davies said. “And not get into a situation where it's so unreasonable that they're going to have the majority of the listings continue to be illegal.”

In Pine Valley, Sullivan’s three properties are grandfathered in because she has a license. But she had been drawing up plans for a nearby lot she owns in Pine Valley to add another rental. She won’t be able to do anything unless they change the regulations.

Sullivan said she understands people’s concerns about neighbors being impacted. She lives in town herself — just a few houses away from her pioneer home on Main Street. But she says most operators and guests aren’t causing problems.

“Personally, for us, it's always people [who] come here to have some peace and tranquility and be in the mountains, be next to nature,” Sullivan said. “That’s mostly what people come here for.”

Commissioner Snow pointed out that immediately after the commission passed the stricter ordinance related to these rentals, they also approved a feasibility study. They’re looking into how to potentially allow non-owner-occupied residences to run, like including additional fees. He said they’re trying to help neighbors on both sides of the fence.

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