Vacation homes are flashing on the County radar.
There are upwards of 40 country homes in the Foothills listed on Airbnb for people looking for a temporary rentals – and even more popping up during major events like the Calgary Stampede or Spruce Meadows weekends.
While most of the homes operating as Airbnbs pose no issues in the county, some neighbours have complained after rentals turned into party houses.
Foothills County currently has no policy with regards to Airbnb rentals and the conversation and council has directed municipal staff to investigate ways to have the homes operate legally, whether through site-specific amendments to land use or business licences and permits.
“We don’t currently have a mechanism for permitting Airbnbs,” said Reeve Suzanne Oel. “We have other various permutations and combinations of people staying, renting and now secondary suites, but we don’t have Airbnb set up.”
She brought the issues before council after hearing complaints over the party house.
“Some of the neighbours who didn’t understand what was going on felt they were at risk because operations such as this that didn’t have insurance became a liability for them,” said Oel.
The landowner, who runs the Airbnb listing, approached the County to find out how to make the rental legal. But the municipality has no policy in place, said Oel.
She wondered whether the homes could be permitted in the land use bylaw in order for the County to have some degree of control, to ensure the units are safe and operating legally, and a way to hold owners accountable if things go awry.
“That would be looking at them as permitting them for overnight stays where people want to make some money off their places,” said Oel. “I think it could be contentious, but if the spirit of the intent is just to have people show up and quietly sleep at your house, that is different than what was occurring at the one I mentioned that ended up getting shut down by our enforcement.”
Foothills director of planning Heather Hemingway said the Airbnb must be approached differently than classic bed and breakfast businesses, for which the County has land use bylaws in place.
The main difference between the two is in a bed and breakfast situation, the landowner is required to be present, she said.
“If I’m renting an Airbnb I’m effectively renting the house and nobody else is there,” said Hemingway. “It’s usually renting the entire unit.”
She said there have been more than the one request to operate the vacation rental properties legally in the municipality.
Short-term rental properties like VRBO and Airbnb operate throughout the world, she said. But from the County’s perspective it’s not as simple as just putting an ad online.
“To look at allowing for Airbnbs to exist in the municipality under certain regulations with a licence, we need to make sure they’re safe, fire compliant, so there would be fire inspections and business permits in place,” said Hemingway.
Coming up with policies around the vacation rentals will involve a lengthy public consultation process, she said.
As it stands currently, in order for the rentals to be compliant with County land use bylaws, owners should have site-specific amendments on their properties, she said.
“No one is going to do that,” said Hemingway. “So these are going to keep operating illegally.”
She said the City of Calgary is looking at issuing business licences, registering properties and having fire inspections done on a regular basis. It would be a good direction for the County to consider as well, she said.
There would be no appeal option for neighbours with a registration-type process, although area landowners could be informed of Airbnb listings.
For the most part, the vacation rental properties don’t seem to cause issues, she said.
“A lot of them are operating and people don’t even know they’re there, so they’re not a problem,” said Hemingway.
Coun. Larry Spilak said he was happy to have County staff look into options for handling Airbnbs, though he said he’d prefer requiring a site-specific amendment for the neighbours’ sake.
If an application for a land use amendment was necessary, the neighbours would have the opportunity to voice opinions, he said.
“My concern is, in my area (Division 6) this could explode,” said Spilak. “Our houses are not acreages for the most part at Heritage Pointe and the Lake and Artesia.
“So I’m concerned, and that’s why I like the appeal process being part of it.”
Coun. Jason Parker said it could become a contentious issue in Division 3, in the Millarville area.
“I’ve heard from a bunch of people on both sides, people who want to have them and people who are strongly opposed,” said Parker.
He said even with substantial public engagement there’s likely to be pushback on the issue. Many people are voicing concerns with adding traffic and the potential for increased crime with bringing more unknown people to the area, he said.
“It would be nice to have something in place to know where those things are taking place,” said Parker.
Deputy Reeve Rob Siewert said the fact there is more than 40 rental properties in the Foothills indicates a demand and the County should be prepared to properly permit them.
“Expecting them to all come in before council for a site-specific amendment I think is a little excessive for somebody who just is looking to make a few extra dollars on their investment,” said Siewert. “I really like just a permit. That would be my preference, so we’re not always having everybody here.”