The Grand County Council met on July 18 for a special meeting and voted 5-0 to pass an ordinance that removes rights to build new nightly rentals in all zoning districts in the county.
Council members also approved a nightly rentals overlay map, which allows for overnight rentals in places where they already exist and in parts of Crescent Junction, Thompson Springs and Cisco and other places in the county. Current vested projects for nightly rentals that are in various stages of development are allowed to continue as previously planned.
The council had voted on a similar ordinance on Tuesday, July 16; with the council’s 3-3 tied vote, the ordinance had failed.
At the July 18 meeting, council members Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells were absent, and council member Jaylyn Hawks said she was traveling internationally but called in and participated in the vote by phone.
Hawks stated a disclosure that she has a personal interest in nightly rentals — she said she owns a bed-and-breakfast, but said participating in decision-making about nightly rentals does not create a benefit to her financially.
No discussion about the ordinance took place among the council members and council members did not return messages seeking comment.
After the meeting, Grand County Council member Mary McGann agreed to give comments in person and said, “This will give us the opportunity to grow in a way that will enhance our community rather than detract from it, and it will give us the chance to start helping the local people, and that’s [what] the people in this community spoke loudly in favor of.”
About 30 people attended the July 18 special meeting. No public comments were facilitated from those in attendance. Following the meeting, McGann cited legal advice received from an attorney to not allow for public comments concerning the agenda.
Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan said by email that she advised the council to not facilitate public comments. The legal reasoning in her decision was that several open public meetings had been held for public comment on the issue, and the focus of the special meeting was on the vote only.
“Further, as we saw after the vote on July 16, emotions were high and tempers were hot,” Sloan wrote on July 22. “I weighed disallowing additional public comment against requesting the sheriff's office to help with security and crowd control.”
The Moab Sun News spoke with several people after the meeting who wanted to share their comments. Comments ranged from people in support of the measure, to people who said they will now be suing the county council and each member individually in response to the decisions made at the meeting. (The Moab Sun News will keep the community updated if any formal legal action is taken.)
Grand County Planning Commission member Cricket Green said she was the sole “no” vote on recommending this new ordinance for the council to consider.
“I think we have plenty of motels and we need to slow down,” Green said. “I understand that completely. I also understand what we need more than anything is a place for people to live, so I was really for the high-density because we have to do something — but I am against telling people what they can and cannot do with their property.”
Changing the zoning on highway commercial property will cause a devaluation of property values, McElhaney Construction owner Richard McElhaney said . He said if the highway commercial properties are devalued, the property owners should receive a reduction in the taxes on their properties.
“We shouldn’t have to be paying high taxes while they’re trying to make up their mind,” he said. “So I’ve got a question for them. I own highway commercial. I’ve already got three overnight rentals. And now they put a moratorium for six months … so what am I going to put next to overnight rentals that would be in highway commercial? Highway commercial has always been the main zoning for motels, hotels, commercial everything. To even think of even changing it is stupidity. I’ve been a contractor for 55 years and I know what I’m talking about. The people evidently don’t understand construction and I’m probably going to sue them if they change my zoning. It’s that simple. And there’s a lot of us that’s getting together that’s planning on [suing].”
McGann said she “felt bad” public comment was not facilitated at the special meeting, but felt it was the right decision by council to follow the county attorney’s legal advice. As for the vote, she said, “I think we did what was the right thing to do.”
“This does not mean we won’t have the opportunity to build new motels approved at a later date,” McGann said, “but this will give us a time to get things in place that will enable us to insist on xeriscaping, insist on using low-flush toilets, insist on having showers that use the least amount of water, insist that there is some type of architectural design that blends into our surroundings so that we don't have these cookie-cutter motels that look like every motel in every other town that you go through.”
Moab City Planning Commission member Kya Marienfeld was present for the county’s meeting. Following the meeting, she said ,“The city and the county have in large been tracking in the same direction” on limiting nightly rental growth.
“The consulting firms the city and the county hired took hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of public comment,” Marienfeld said. “I mean there was a letter that 700 people signed within like three days saying we would not like any new overnight accommodations to be allowed at this point in the county. Like, turn the faucets off, let’s take a breather; let’s see what it’s like when we don’t have five new hotels being built every month and see what it actually feels like in the county and city.”
As a 50-year resident and a private land owner in the county, Katherine Holyoak said the decision “really concerns” her. Her family owns a large green pasture where cows graze near the Maverick station on south U.S. Highway 191, and while her family has received multiple offers on the property, she said they are not interested in developing it as a commercial property any time soon.
She said she understand why the county passed the ordinance to restrict new nightly rental growth.
“But I think they’re going to see some repercussions from it which, if there are those who sue, then that will cost me as a city or county person here,” she said. “I still feel it’s taking away the personal property rights. I don’t like to see the explosion that’s going on, but I own acreage — and I have no intention of developing it — but I still feel that it’s taking away my rights to do so if I [did want to]. I’m also going to pursue the fact that they devalued my property values now and I expect to see a tax break. I don’t know that they’ll give us that, but it’s kind of devastating for those who own property.”
She said the change will push development to northern San Juan County.
If this happens, one local resident who did not wish to share their name publicly said they don’t feel comfortable with San Juan County receiving taxes on future nightly rentals for tourists who are intending to visit Moab and Grand County.
Landowner and Moab resident Robert Hines expressed his displeasure at the council’s decision. He said his family has owned land in the county for the last 107 years.
“What they did is absolute tyranny,” he said. “I think this was underhanded, at the least, and tyrannical.”
Citizens also expressed their varied opinions on social media.
“This is outrageous,” Mitchell Walasek wrote on the Moab Sun News’ Facebook page under a post about the special meeting. “Who do they think they are, holding an emergency meeting to re-vote a failed article after several council members are not here to participate.”
“So now we’re throwing a fit because they aren’t letting more overnight rentals in the county?” wrote Rose Shumway. “I thought that was a good thing. They’re destroying our town!”
Several comments expressed displeasure that a special meeting was called to re-vote on the overnight issue, with one comment calling it a “railroad re-do.” Others voiced unhappiness with the lack of opportunity for public comment, Hawks’ decision to vote, and some confusion that occurred when the public notice for the meeting temporarily said it was canceled.
According to an email from Grand County County Clerk/Auditor Chris Baird, the notice for the special meeting was posted on Wednesday, July 17, at 1:51 p.m. that the meeting would take place at 2 p.m. the next day, meeting the legal requirement that public notice be given at least 24-hours in advance of a meeting. Then, at 9:19 a.m. the following morning, Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon mistakenly authorized canceling the meeting. There was no intent by the council to cancel the meeting, Sloan confirmed.
Sloan said the “erroneous” cancellation was online for less than an hour before it was fixed.
Baird said Dillon “sought outside legal advice on the matter of re-posting a canceled meeting to be held the same day,” since the county attorney was not immediately available to assist with the issue. Baird said the legal counsel’s recommendation was to re-post and move forward with the meeting.
Despite the error, Sloan said timely and accurate public notice was achieved.
“The council chambers were packed for the meeting, and I have been told by numerous folks that they watched the meeting at home on YouTube,” Sloan said.