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No Airbnbs in residential Solon

Council passes first reading of zoning changes

SOLON For now, there will be no short-term rentals in residential areas.
The first reading of an ordinance limiting such rentals to commercial areas was passed at a Dec. 18 meeting of the Solon City Council.
Council members were asked to consider allowing the alternate lodging in residential zones by Michelle Bennett, of Solon, who has been offering short-term stays in a house at 113 E. Elm Street.
Council members stuck with the recommendations of the citys Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission, but left the door open to future modifications.
The new ordinance was one of many revisions to the citys zoning code considered at the meeting.
The changes included allowing hotels in all commercial zoning areas and the introduction of a law regulating bed and breakfasts, as well as the rules for short-term rentals, commonly referred to by the name of one of the most popular websites, Airbnbs.
Bennett, a local real estate agent, spoke during a public hearing for the slew of changes.
People stay at these types of places because they want a homelike atmosphere, she said, requesting the city consider allowing residential properties to be included.
She and her husband purchased the Elm Street house last year for his mother, she said, who instead decided to move to Wisconsin. So we had this lovely little historic home but we werent sure what we were going to do with it.
Bennett said shed been in love with the idea of providing a home for families to gather together for short stays, noting her family stayed at such venues across the country.
Additionally, she noted, many of her clients indicated a desire for a local option to bring their own families back.
The short-term stays in private homes are generally more economical for families wanting to gather together, she noted.
In the past year, she said, the couple furnished the home, prepared it for guests with new beds, televisions, fresh linens and board games, and rented it out to 43 sets of guests in 2019.
A strict policy is maintained on parking, pets, noise and occupancy limits, she commented, and guests sign a statement acknowledging they can be immediately removed for a violation.
There have been no calls for law enforcement and the home has been reviewed after each stay, she added.
A group of 11 seeking to rent the house for Beef Days was turned down, she said, and the house was not rented over Halloween.
But Bennett couldnt promise every operator would be as stringent, which was the concern Mayor Steve Stange raised.
How do you deal with hosts who do allow large, noisy parties?
The city could institute fines, Bennett responded, and if sites are not maintained, it will be pointed out in reviews. Airbnb providers, she added, undergo a background check.
Under the new rules, potential short-term stay owners would need to apply for a two-year city permit and undergo inspection, explained City Administrator Cami Rasmussen. Language is included in the ordinance to allow for a permit to be revoked.
Rasmussen said the Bennetts were operating outside of city code.
There were several complaints, thats how we even knew this was happening, she said.
The city notified the Bennetts they were operating out of compliance, Rasmussen continued, the couple applied for a conditional use permit to the citys Board of Adjustment and were denied.
But Bennett contended the complaints were only based on the use of the home, not the behavior of tenants.
The complaints I received were about parking and just the general activity the property creates, the coming and going of strangers in the neighborhood, Rasmussen explained. A lot of concern about that type of business being in their neighborhood.
Bennett conceded the home-stay business would be allowed under the citys new bed and breakfast ordinance if a staff person lived on-site.
She said she prefers not to rent homes when the owner is still on location, finding it creepy.
Her customers receive check-in instructions and can reach her by cell phone, and someone is always available in town to check on the property, she said.
We could potentially move someone in to fit a bed and breakfast type situation, but thats really not the best use for it, she concluded.
Council member Steve Duncan sided with the P&Z Commission.
Severe parking issues in his Fox Ridge neighborhood would likely be worse with short term rentals allowed in residential areas, he said.
Its common practice in a community of this size that people turn their garages into playgrounds anyway, and they cant park their cars in their own garages, he noted. We have parking issues in our area right now. Im not in favor of going outside the restrictions.
Council members Mark Prentice and Lynn Morris agreed
I think its probably a good start, Prentice noted.
Council member Lauren Whitehead was the lone dissenter, noting she was a big fan of Airbnbs and felt they should be allowed in residential zones.
I would like to see run down houses bought rather than left to rot, she said.
Solon is becoming a destination, she added, and theres money to be made.
The sticking point was enforcement.
P&Z members had a long discussion about the restriction, City Attorney Kevin Olson explained. P&Z recommended commercial because the members were concerned about parties, he said, but council members were free to make changes.
Itd be more of a complaint basis, noted Olson. Its different in bigger towns where you have your own police department.
The sheriffs office is not going to be running around the county to see if someone is operating an airbnb, he said.
In Coralville, he added, people are required to live in the house at all times because some gatherings got out of hand during football season.
The new Solon ordinance was based on an existing law in the Des Moines metropolitan area, he said.
Rasmussen stated application for a conditional use is still an option for short-term rentals seeking to operate in a residential zone.
Local developer Al Wells spoke in favor of allowing the short term stays in residential zones. The P&Z Commission may have been swayed to limiting the use to commercial areas after Wells sought to include rentals as part of a plan to renovate for the former St. Mary Catholic Church Auditorium, he said.
The Palmer House Stable, which Wells operates as an event venue, has hosted over 210 weddings and a number of the families have stayed at the Bennetts Elm Street location, he said.
Its difficult to provide a nice residence for temporary stays in a commercial area, he noted.
Since youve got a beautiful airbnb property operating now, theyve put a lot of money into it, they could set the tone for more airbnbs because like she says, if you dont have good reviews, and you dont keep the property up, people wont stay there and theyll sell it or put a full time renter in, Wells said.
Mayor Stange said he sided with Whitehead, but had reservations.
It would only take one really bad experience if youre living next to that property, he said.
As a relatively new type of business, the city has a lot of learning to do regarding short-term stays, he said. Stange favored moving forward with P&Z recommendation, with an eye to review in the future.
He suggested researching what other similar-sized towns have done to protect residential neighborhoods.