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Crow Wing County seeks public input on short-term rental ordinance changes

The ordinance, which went into effect at the beginning of 2021, outlines the responsibilities of operators to abide by rules concerning septic systems and solid waste, occupancy, noise, parking and conformity with existing county and state requirements. These properties must also be licensed annually.

A lawn chair sits on a wooden dock at sunset
In 2021, about 80% of those known to be operating short-term rental properties in Crow Wing County acquired the proper licensure.
Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service
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BRAINERD — Short-term rentals in Crow Wing County may soon be subject to stricter occupancy limits and some cities and townships could opt to ban their operation outright.

The Crow Wing County Board is expected to consider updates to the countywide ordinance requiring annual licenses for these rental properties alongside numerous regulations and responsibilities of the operators.

The ordinance, which went into effect at the beginning of 2021, outlines the responsibilities of operators to abide by rules concerning septic systems and solid waste, occupancy, noise, parking and conformity with existing county and state requirements. It also establishes penalties for not resolving complaints, as well as fines for those falsely reporting violations at short-term rental properties.

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The ordinance states short-term rentals will not be allowed to operate in the county without an annual license and defines these rentals as “any home, cabin, condominium or similar building that is advertised as, or held out to be, a place where sleeping quarters are furnished to the public on a nightly, weekly, or for less than a 30-day time period and is not a bed and breakfast, resort, hotel or motel.”

In 2021, about 80% of those known to be operating short-term rental properties acquired the proper licensure. The 362 licenses were among the nearly 500 properties land services officials identified using a software program as those listed for rent on various websites.

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Commissioners Tuesday, Aug. 23, agreed to schedule a public hearing on the ordinance revisions for 9:05 a.m. Oct. 11, and a 30-day public comment period runs Aug. 30-Sept. 29. The proposed revisions will be posted Aug. 30 at crowwing.us/ordinance and comments can be sent to landservices@crowwing.us or mailed to Attn: STR Ordinance, Land Services Building, 322 Laurel St., Suite 15, Brainerd, MN, 56401.

Where the ordinance applies

During an Aug. 16 discussion at the board’s committee of the whole meeting, County Administrator Tim Houle said inquiries from at least two cities wishing to ban short-term rentals prompted a closer look at the ordinance. The ordinance — first in effect in 2021 — is grounded in the county’s public health authority and its purpose is to “mitigate possible adverse impacts to the health, safety, welfare, and quality of life of surrounding properties, as well as water and environmental quality,” according to the text.

While cities and townships may adopt ordinances related to public health, the ordinances cannot be in conflict with or be less restrictive than county ordinances. For this reason, Houle said making changes to allow cities and townships to opt in to the ordinance applying in their jurisdictions is not possible. These local governments could opt out, however — as long as they’ve established a jurisdiction-wide ban on short-term rental properties.

“If their local zoning law prohibits short-term rentals, then there is no public health threat from a short-term rental,” Houle said. “And so we believe that we can carve out this language and as long as they could verify to us that they prohibit short-term rentals within their jurisdiction, we would not license anyone in that jurisdiction.”

In 2021, city officials in Cuyuna maintained their land use ordinance prohibited short-term rentals, yet according to a map created by Crow Wing County , four such rental properties obtained licenses there. This May, the Ironton City Council passed its own ban on the practice within city limits — three properties there currently have county-issued licenses.

Last year when this topic arose, Land Services Director Gary Griffin told commissioners if a property owner learned the rentals weren’t permitted in their local jurisdiction, the county would issue a refund for the license. At the time, however, Griffin did not plan for the county department to be in the business of tracking and enforcing city or township ordinances.

Houle noted Aug. 16, with the changes under consideration, cities and townships would not be able to ban short-term rentals in certain zoning or geographical areas. To opt out of the county ordinance, it must be a blanket ban.

Occupancy limits

The current ordinance requires licensed short-term rentals to limit overnight occupancy to four people per bedroom, plus one more person in the unit. Based on County Board discussion, a revision would reduce that limit to three per bedroom, plus one more in the unit. Altering the occupancy limit could address two issues: the prevalence of noise complaints and potentially overwhelmed septic systems.

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Environmental services supervisor Jake Frie told commissioners noise complaints account for the majority of complaints received about short-term rentals. He noted although noise issues could be due to over-occupancy, it’s not easy to enforce because law enforcement or land services staff do not count how many people are in beds. Occupancy limits apply to how many are sleeping at the property — not how many are present.

“I think what we get is the noise is easily enforceable because we have a police report that says, ‘We broke up the party, we broke up the issue,’” Frie said. “ … That’s a verifiable complaint. It’s been more difficult to say, ‘Did they have four per bedroom at 11 o’clock at night? Knock, knock, knock, we’re gonna go in each bedroom.’”

Frie said the occupancy limits included in the original ordinance were based upon similar regulations in place elsewhere, and Griffin said drafting the language was a balancing act in what could or could not be easily enforced.

“There’s no right or wrong here,” Griffin said. “We were just taking a stab at where the sweet spot was, I guess, and that was based on the evidence of the majority of septics not failing. So I’ll tell you, with the four plus one, the biggest problem is — it isn’t septic — it’s noise. It’s the nuisance complaints. Too big of parties for some of those properties. That’s the feedback we’ve gotten.”

Ordinance philosophy

Commissioner Paul Koering asked why a short-term rental ordinance was needed if law enforcement officials took care of noise complaints. Houle reminded Koering the ordinance’s existence was the board’s doing, and staff enforce those ordinances and provide advice on how to shape them. Koering has long been opposed to the ordinance and along with Commissioner Rosemary Franzen, voted against its establishment in 2020. He also operates a short-term rental property on South Long Lake, for which he obtained a county license.

Commissioner Steve Barrows said the ordinance addresses more concerns than noisy neighbors — county officials can keep a closer eye on how septic systems are managing the volume of guests.

“Where do we fall then on property rights? Property rights is a pretty darn important thing,” Koering said. “ … You take like, Ironton says, ‘We don’t want any short-term rentals up there.’ I think I’d take ‘em to court and sue ‘em, and say, ‘This is my property.’ I should have some property rights, shouldn’t I?”

“I won’t disagree with you in theory, what you’re saying,” Barrows replied. “What I would offer up is, whose property rights are we talking about? Is it yours? Or is it your neighbors? And if you’re causing the neighbors some bad experiences with your short-term rental — people parking on their property, throwing garbage around — then whose property rights do we take on?

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“That’s always been our problem with property rights, is whose property rights are we talking about?”

Koering said a family reunion at a non-rental property next door might also lead to parking and noise issues and yet, the county would not intervene in that. Barrows said law enforcement would, if the affected neighbor contacted them.

Franzen reiterated Koering’s earlier point, stating it seemed most of the issues with short-term rentals appeared to be handled by the sheriff or local police.

Frie said applying the ordinance to these complaints handled by law enforcement means it could have licensing impacts on the property owner.

“If we have three verified complaints within a year, we would remove their license. We would remove their ability to advertise this as a short-term rental,” Frie said. “Whereas without the short-term rental ordinance, people would still call the police and they would act, but there would be no removal of that kind of activity.”

Houle added the ordinance also allows the county to address septic issues sooner than it otherwise might, because compliance with septic regulations is required for licensure.

“It is a more intensive use,” Houle said. “So we probably should make sure that it is in compliance.”

Commissioner Bill Brekken said establishing the ordinance in the first place came about in response to owners of small resorts expressing concerns over the lack of a level playing field. Although Brekken said he believes regulating short-term rentals should be the state’s responsibility, not the county’s, the ordinance came in reaction to constituent desires.

“To me, it seems like the resorts are just mad because it’s taking business away from them, and then you put the squeeze on short-term rentals and these people think they’re gonna come back to the resorts,” Koering said. “I don’t know if I believe that.”

“I think we need vacation rentals,” Brekken replied. “We don’t want to limit them. We need them, because they fill a void of the resorts that have closed. The resorts that are doing it are just saying, ‘We want a level playing field. We want — if we’re having to pay these taxes and doing this, then those are people that are in the hospitality industry … should be also having and paying their fair share.’”

Griffin said the ordinance puts the onus on the property owner to be responsible, but it does not take away their right to operate a short-term rental.

“You can, if you follow these extra rules,” Griffin said. “ … Before we had this ordinance, you would still have a laundry list of frustrated people with no results probably, other than they call the sheriff and hopefully the party got quieted down. But just the public’s knowledge of the septic is being checked, I think is a great benefit. That’s what we hear from the public.”

After the meeting, Griffin said the department is in the process of revoking licenses from two short-term rental properties — one for septic issues, and the other for noise complaints.

“We’ve really went very cautiously before we’ve dropped hammers, but now it’s at the point where we have worked and worked and we’ve educated and we’ve done all that, where some people are just not interested or don’t believe they have to,” Griffin said. “I understand, but here’s the consequence, you know. So we are moving forward with that stuff. So I think if we do, I don’t know, a handful of those, will that send the message, ‘Oh, this isn’t some just ordinance on the shelf they’re never going to do anything with,’ you know.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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