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City reluctantly broadens short-term rental law

Council Oks raft of changes to city code

SOLON– It was time for some fall housekeeping for Solon’s Code of Ordinances.
At an Oct. 7 meeting, Solon City Council members approved numerous updates to existing laws, added new regulations for solar energy users and adapted to recent mandates by the Iowa Legislature.
Specifically, the city adopted 2015 international building and fire codes, created new rules to allow for ground and roof solar arrays, and struck language limiting short-term rentals to commercially-zoned areas.
Short-term rental properties, commonly referred to as airbnbs, were not allowed by city code until January of this year when the city also adopted local regulations for bed and breakfasts.
Council members at the time concurred with Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission recommendations to restrict the temporary stay businesses to commercial areas to prevent clogging residential streets. Neighbors of a short-term rental at 113 E. Elm St. also told city council members they felt uneasy with the frequent out-of-town visitors.
The city contended the Elm Street business was operating outside of city code, and pursued municipal infractions against the owners, but a change to state law prohibited the city from limiting airbnbs to commercial zones.
Because the short-term stay and solar energy ordinances related directly to zoning, council members held a public hearing on both at the Oct. 7 meeting.
There was no public comment offered.
City Attorney Kevin Olson elaborated on the short-term changes later in the meeting when the amendment came up for consideration.
The state not only prohibited the city from designating only commercial areas for airbnbs, it forbid communities from collecting a permit fee, Olson reported.
The city is still allowed to monitor the businesses through inspections every two years, he said, and because the service is outsourced, a $250 fee will be charged.
In addition, the city is now requiring one off-street parking spot per bedroom with a four-unit maximum.
“It’s not a big requirement, but we have parking issues,” Olson explained. “As we probably will see, sometimes in your short-term rentals, you get numerous groups there.”
Violations of the parking rules are subject to the issuance of a municipal infraction, he added.
City Administrator Cami Rasmussen noted off-street parking was not included in the original ordinance because short-term rentals were contained to commercial zones.
“But now that it’s all over town, the planning and zoning felt that was an important addition,” she said.
In theory, Olson observed, enforcement would occur on a complaint basis, since most violations won’t happen during regular business hours.
“The state is making it more difficult to enforce the rules on this,” he commented. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it happened.”
Council members also passed a resolution establishing the inspection policies for short-term rentals and bed and breakfasts.
The checklist was actually before the council in April, Rasmussen explained, but action was postponed as the city waited for the revisions of the short-term rental ordinance.
Rasmussen, Public Works Director Scott Kleppe, inspector Steve Lee and Fire Chief Bob Siddell reviewed the rules, which require visible and accessible fire extinguishers in the kitchen and on every level; interconnected smoke detectors with battery backups inside and outside each bedroom; GFCI outlets in all required locations; no electrical service provided through extension cords; and working carbon dioxide detectors on each floor.
The inspections are similar for both types of business, Rasmussen added.
Council members approved both the ordinance amendment and the inspections policies unanimously, with council member Lynn Morris absent.
The solar ordinance was also passed on a 4-0 vote.
A new addition to zoning code, Rasmussen said, the ordinance provides guidance and guidelines for solar energy systems, currently not addressed by city code.
She credited City Engineer Dave Schechinger for researching examples and developing an ordinance tailored to best meet the needs of Solon.
The new code defines solar energy systems, requires building permits and inspections, does not allow large solar energy systems in residential areas and prohibits utility scale systems entirely.
It sets forth guidelines for ground or roof arrays, establishes setbacks and height requirements, and allows off-grid systems.
Other code revisions approved by council members included:
• Water rates outside city limits: Changed the rate for out-of-town users to twice the rate of in-town users to reflect the decisions made in authorizing service to Gallery Acres West. Current codes stated the same rate charged to both.
• Sewer Connections: Updated the section relating to inspections and materials requirements to align with Iowa Statewide Urban Design and Specifications and adopted building code.
• Building Code: Amended Chapter 155, updating the adopted building code from the 2003 Building Code to the 2015 International Building Code and other related codes. The amendment includes language referencing solar energy systems and adds a Knox Box requirement for short-term rentals and bed and breakfasts.
• Fire Code: Adopted the 2015 International Fire Code and amendments.
All but the short-term rental ordinance were created by Assistant City Attorney Jim Martinek, Rasmussen noted.