Legislature should address rental homes

I love vacation rental homes. I’ve been lucky enough to stay in them in Paris, Rome and New Zealand. My summer vacation this August was spent in a rental home at Lake Vermilion, and it was perfect: plenty of peace and quiet, without the hustle and bustle of a traditional hotel or resort.

Nothing against hotels and resorts! We’ve stayed in plenty of those, too, on our various travels around the country and world (some of which we’re still paying off).

Vacation rental homes are an important piece of the lodging pie in a tourist area like Mille Lacs. It’s also a great business opportunity. If I had the money and desire to invest in a cabin or second home, I’d seriously consider renting it out to pay the mortgage, insurance, and/or taxes.

The trouble is that in many communities, rental homes aren’t on a level playing field with other lodging businesses. That creates problems with neighbors as well as the competition.

We saw those troubles come to a head a couple years ago, when disputes over vacation rentals — mainly stemming from one specific home — resulted in hours of debate at the Mille Lacs County Planning Commission and the eventual passage of a county vacation rental home ordinance.

Some owners of vacation rental homes argue that they should not be regulated by the county or the state. We all love free enterprise and hate excessive regulation, but the reality is this: Other lodging businesses must jump through certain hoops to protect the health and welfare of individuals and the community. The same treatment should be given to vacation rental homes to make the system fair.

Septic systems need to be inspected to ensure that the environment is protected. Homes need to be safe to ensure that renters’ lives are protected.

In fact, if anything, vacation rental homes should be more carefully monitored than other lodging businesses, for this simple reason: They exist in residential areas, where neighbors have certain expectations based on the neighborhood’s zoning ordinances. Rental homes are businesses operating in residential areas, and they should be regulated as such.

As we’ve seen over the years since the implementation of the ordinance, however, county regulations are not doing the job sufficiently. Disputes among neighbors persist because renters don’t behave like full-time residents. Five guys who rent a home for a bachelor party, or a big family that holds a reunion at a rental home, can turn a quiet neighborhood into party central or a playground of screaming children who are not accountable to the neighbors in the same way permanent residents are.

Also, as with all county ordinances, enforcement of the new regulations has been spotty. The county land services department simply doesn’t have the staff to seek out every rental home, or dog kennel, or unlicensed junkyard, and make sure they’re complying with county ordinances. Even if they could, some property owners are going to refuse, and the resulting legal battles can take years to resolve, especially in a county with a high crime rate, where enforcement of zoning laws is a low priority.

Counties also don’t have the expertise to write ordinances that will address all concerns and contingencies while passing constitutional muster. That should be the state’s job, not the job of part-time commissioners in rural Minnesota.

Until the Legislature steps in, we can expect thousands of small fires to flare up and burn in hundreds of communities around the state, just as we’ve seen in Mille Lacs County.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.

The column was published in the Mille Lacs Messenger on Sept. 12, 2012.



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