Dowd Flats RV Park

Many highway commercial properties on U.S. Highway 191, such as Dowd Flats RV Park, are in the process of new developments as plans are set into place in Moab and Grand County to restrict new nightly rental growth. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

“I think everybody realizes something crazy is happening — that we’re on a runaway freight train,” Dan Kent said.

Kent is one of dozens of local residents concerned Moab is losing its character amid its recent surge in nightly rentals. He was speaking to the Grand County Council on May 21 about local policy goals related to a current moratorium in place that prohibits new applications or permits for nightly rental developments.

“There’s gotta be something drastic to change this,” Kent said, pointing out growing hotel and motel projects. “… Moab is so much more than just a small tiny community in this vast landscape that in my eyes is being exploited for corporate industrialized tourism. I don’t like it at all.”

Neither do his friends, he said: “All of my friends that have been coming here for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, are also disappointed in runaway tourism.”

The solution, he told the council, is to understand that the area is now beyond its carrying capacity for tourism and officials need to make changes to reduce the number of nightly rentals, which would still allow for maximum visitation but limit some of the impacts.

The Grand County Council has been receiving comments on planning centered on nightly rentals and economic growth ever since the moratorium went into effect on Feb. 5. The council received “like 50 comments” at its July 2 meeting, Grand County Council chair Evan Clapper said.

In addition to receiving comments about Moab losing its character, the council has received comments about the strains placed on affordable housing — as residential homes flipped over the years into nightly rentals, the local housing market shrank.

“We need to look inward at our community needs before we decide to build out for the world to visit all at once,” Kirstin Peterson commented to council by writing a letter on June 11. “Our community needs housing, our businesses need workers that can find a place to live.”

Around town, businesses are changing to help solve the shortage of short- and longterm housing options needed to keep businesses staffed. This includes businesses that benefit from tourism, such as guiding companies, that assist with finding or providing employee housing to fill the gap in the community.

“So many of the houses that river guides all used to pile together and rent here in town are now in the overnight rental market and so they’re not even available to them,” said Western River Expeditions CEO Brian Merrill.

Ideas about creating a large campus for housing the company’s Moab river guides solidified into a plan in 2018; the project to build a campus for up to 64 seasonal employees is nearing completion on U.S. Highway 191.

Zacharia Levine, director of the Grand County Community and Economic Development Department, updated Clapper and the council by saying his department has led the conversations about making changes to land use planning and development.

“I think we have a significantly better understanding of the overnight accommodations industry and developing trends in Grand County than we did three, even four, months ago,” Levine said.

The planning work generated a proposed ordinance to remove property use rights from all zoning districts that allow for new overnight rental developments.

Limiting nightly rental growth can help Moab by shaping zoning policies that meet the needs of the community, but officials have said it may not do anything to regenerate the local housing market for Moab’s residents.

When asked if he thinks eliminating new nightly rental developments in Grand County will improve affordable housing, Grand County Building Department Inspector Jeff Whitney said “I don’t think so.”

“I don’t know how that affects affordable housing … land values are still through the roof in Moab,” he said on July 9. “Even in 2008 (during the housing market crash) we didn’t lose our values. It’s still expensive to build here. Unless there’s some programs or allowances for density or that type of thing, or programs providing land, I don’t see the affordability of housing improving.”

Chantze Palmer is the permit technician for the Grand County Building Department and he works closely with Whitney on processing permits.

“I think the explosive growth we’ve seen, especially in the last three years, probably does need to be tempered if we’re going to have any hope of guiding a community that we want to live in,” Palmer said. “But I really do think we have to be careful how we do it. I think it needs to be a highly participatory process that we should be patient about.”

Whitney said he’s not seeing much movement in private housing growth or homebuilding in Grand County.

“I see a little bit of movement south of the San Juan County line,” he said.

Otherwise, developments are focused on commercial interests. Merrill thinks more businesses in Moab will start incorporating housing development plans into commercial operations to house employees.

Several commercial projects that were in the planning stages before the Feb. 5 moratorium went into place are still being developed and some have not yet begun. On U.S. Highway 191, a plan is in place to re-develop the property known as Dowd Flats into a new nightly rental business. The new owners of that property do not reside in Moab.

“They are clear to proceed,” Whitney said, explaining the necessary planning steps had been taken by the owners of the property before the moratorium was issued.

Real estate investor and businessman John Knight agrees Moab is facing challenges related to growth and development. He lives in Moab and also runs Strata Solar, based in Durham, North Carolina, which he said he commutes to monthly. But the challenges of growth and tourism aren’t going to be solved by creating “a lack of investor confidence” in economic development in Moab, he said.

“I urge you to not disincentive one industry, to try to address another challenge. Instead, our community should leverage the strength that we have (tourism) to help address the other challenges we face,” he wrote in a June 10 letter to council. “Our main source of funds for our community comes from the tourism industry, let’s embrace that to assist in addressing our infrastructure, education and housing needs.”

But like Kent, plenty of others in the community want to stop the “runaway freight train” they see as tourism orchestrated by outside influences.

“These problems will not be solved by temporary fixes or ad-hoc reforms, but only through a change in mindset regarding the purposes and vectors of community planning, and a holistic approach backed by the application of measurable values to be preserved, resources to be protected, and implicate carrying capacities to be institutionalized and respected,” Robert Lippman wrote to the Grand County Council on June 26. “Arguments regarding ‘economic development’ benefits simply don’t hold water anymore, in the absence of regulated carrying capacities, and the siphoning of such ‘benefits’ to out‐of‐state corporations and investors.”

His proposed solution to council: “… act creatively, affirmatively and immediately to not only place an indefinite moratorium on overnight accommodations, but to take steps to reverse and mitigate the present situation and its impacts.”

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