Backus rental owners urge residents not to stereotype short-term renters
Short-term rentals pose a sticking point in city's new zoning laws
BACKUS — An attempt to update Backus zoning laws from the 1990s slowed after public comment at a public hearing prompted reconsideration of the proposed land use, subdivision ordinance and zoning map.
The Monday, May 1, hearing ahead of the regular Backus City Council meeting drew a small crowd that included residents who wanted more restriction of short-term property rentals by owner and some who wanted fewer restrictions on them.
In 2022, the council began contracting with Sourcewell for zoning administration and directed them to begin updating the city's zoning ordinances. Amanda Peterson, with Sourcewell, provided the council with a proposed land use and subdivision ordinance at the meeting along with a proposed zoning map Cass County created free of charge and a land use fee schedule.
Six email comments were sent to Clerk Ann Swanson or Peterson. The primary topic of these comments was the proposed ordinances regulating vacation rentals. Emails included:
- Robin Grossinger, who was concerned that the new zoning ordinance would "grandfather in" a current unapproved storage container owned by a relative of a council member, which was supposed to be removed.
- Nancy Foley, who proposed that the licensing fee for short-term rentals be higher and restrictions include noise restrictions.
- Barb and Doug Sherlock, who suggested the Open Meeting Law may have been violated by the zoning committee, consisting of council members Rae Borst and Ann Birge with Peterson and Swanson. The Sherlocks also took issue with Peterson's response to a proposed construction project. They have since decided against continuing with the project.
- Audra Etzel, who was concerned about the restrictions on occupancy numbers.
- Lyle and Robin Grossinger, who said they sold their home and moved in part because they did not like having a short-term rental next door, and proposed that the city include more strict restrictions on these rentals.
- Darrell Bower, who asked that the council table the decision to give more time for public review and feedback.
Some letter writers were present to reiterate and discuss their public comments.
Peterson provided answers and follow-up information to some comments, including the alleged Open Meeting Law violation accusation, which Peterson correctly pointed out did not qualify as a violation under Minnesota statute, as the meeting did not have a quorum, the minimum number of elected, voting council members required for a valid meeting.
Generally speaking, a quorum is at least half of the council, three members in Backus' case. Borst and Birge were the only two elected members in the committee.
Swanson said the city could have done better to announce the schedule for the committee so that interested citizens could have been present to hear discussions. She said they would learn from this experience and improve that transparency in the future.
Letters from Foley and the Sherlocks took issue with the absence of rental property owners who live in Texas.
"Will it become the city's practice to allow out-of-state owners to rent out their properties and never reside in them?" the Sherlock letter asked. "What if there is a fire or a complaint?"
This prompted an in-person response from council members and a current short-term vacation rental owner on Wood Street.
"If you point a finger at someone buying a house and not living here, you're going to make people not want to live in Backus," Birge said. "A lot of people buy a house now when they are young and retire up here. Consequently you can't condemn someone for buying a house and not living in it."
"That is not at all the intent of what I wrote," Sherlock said.
Sherlock's letter also said she had heard a rumor that the owners from Texas had built bedrooms in the home's basement without proper egress windows. Council members said such rooms would not be legal under state regulations, local regulations or even under the agreements signed with short-term rental sites that advertise their homes.
Both in her email and at the meeting, Foley said short-term rentals are required by the Minnesota Department of Health to obtain a license. Council members and short-term rental owners in the room were skeptical of this statement; however, Doug Schultz of the Department of Health confirmed by phone that Minnesota statute 157.15, subdivision 7 does state that lodging that is rented for less than a week qualifies under the statute as a hotel or motel and is required to hold an appropriate license through the Department of Health.
At least four short-term rental owners were present, including Barry Borman and Rick McNamara and the owners on Wood Street.
McNamara said the residents present and the city should keep in mind that there are many reasons someone might choose to use their property as a short-term rental, especially if they plan to enact restrictions.
"You need to look at all the avenues people use VRBOs for," McNamara said. "There's a lot of economic things with a VRBO."
Borman took issue with statements that suggested short-term rental guests were inherently disruptive and inconsiderate to their neighborhoods based on a small number of negative experiences.
"You have good people and you have bad people no matter what you do," Borman said. "You could have people buy a house and next thing you know half the town gets stolen because they're thieves. You can't go by one or two incidents. It's not like it happens every day. That's what kind of irritates me. You're kind of stereotyping and you can't do that."
The owners on Wood Street specifically took issue with the proposed occupancy limits, which say occupancy of each bedroom was two people. The owner said they have a bedroom with one bed for parents and a bunk for younger children to sleep nearby.
She also said the property has a "bunk house" that wouldn't likely count as a bedroom under the current ordinance.
Peterson quickly reviewed the current Crow Wing County ordinances on short-term rentals and conceded that her current proposal appeared to be based on an older ordinance version, as now the county limits it to three people per bedroom plus one person per unit.
Peterson and Borst both said they would like to see that proposal amended.
Peterson referenced Crow Wing County because Cass County has generally left the issue of short-term rentals unaddressed.
The owner on Wood Street said she would like the restriction on tents and campers loosened.
The council ultimately decided to table the land use and subdivision ordinance, zoning map and land use fee schedule until July 10, at which time they hope to have additional public comment and improvements to some of the topics discussed Monday.
"We had to start somewhere, because we had very little to begin with," council member John Wieber said.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.