Residents want regulation of short-term rentals but are divided on the details

New rules could be implemented before the start of the next ski season

Residents think Short-Term Rentals (STRs) such as Airbnb should be regulated in Fernie but they do not agree on much else, according to a recently released survey.

The City of Fernie’s Manager of Planning, Patrick Sorfleet presented the results of the 11-question survey at the May 23 council meeting.

Of the 298 respondents, approximately 12 per cent said STRs would not be acceptable under any circumstances.

The rest would accept STRs under certain conditions such as the availability of adequate parking, a 24-hour complaint hotline for neighbours and a limitation on the number of STRs permitted per block.

Residents were divided on whether or not they’d been positively or negatively impacted by STRs.

One respondent said they work in the tourism and hotel industry in a management capacity and that they’d been negatively impacted by STRs in a number of ways.

The respondent said a lack of regulation has put the hotel industry at a competitive disadvantage with STRs, which has impacted revenue and the ability to secure funding for future hospitality related investment in Fernie.

The respondent also pointed out that STRs pay no provincial hotel tax for provincial marketing efforts and no Municipal, Regional and District Tax (MRDT) which is collected to support the local tourism destination marketing initiatives.

“Based on the most recent count, Airbnb is now the largest accommodation operator in Fernie yet they make no contribution to tourism marketing in our community,” said the respondent. “Essentially STRs are riding on the coattails of the local accommodators who predominately underwrite the cost of tourism marketing in the community.”

Other respondents were in favour of STRs for many of the same reasons.

“I have made (so) much money with Airbnb it’s awesome,” said one respondent. “I don’t have to worry about all the things like insurance, taxes (or) zoning. It’s a free ride and I love it.”

“It has allowed us to generate extra money to supplement our fixed retirement income… and continue to afford living in Fernie full time,” said another. “Also we have met some great people this way and gave them a unique Fernie experience.”

“It’s helped my family afford things like ski passes and (helped) get us out of debt,” said another.

Some argued STRs were causing disturbances in their once peaceful neighbourhoods.

“My current neighbourhood used to be comfortable and quiet,” read one response. “Our nearby neighbours have put their places up for Airbnb. Since then, parking has been atrocious and the noise levels are a nuisance…It has made me think about moving out of a neighbourhood that I love.”

“I no longer feel as safe in my neighbourhood as I did when there were only locals,” read another.

A slim majority said that an STR permit should cost between $250 and $500 per year while about 70 per cent said licensing cost for STRs should increase based on the scale of the rental. This would mean offering a whole home for rent would cost more than one bedroom.

After the presentation, council directed administration to develop a framework that would allow for the permitting and regulation of short term rentals.

Though the city’s zoning bylaws mandate that bed and breakfast type businesses that rent out three bedrooms or less must be licensed and registered, STRs in Fernie remain unregulated.

At a February information session at the Senior Citizens Drop in Centre, CAO Norm McInnis said new rules to legislate STRs would be ready before the start of the coming winter season.

Sorfleet explained that regulating STRs could mean amendments to a number of bylaws including the business licencing and regulation bylaw, the zoning bylaw, the Official Community Plan, the municipal ticket and information bylaw, the signage bylaw and the streets and traffic bylaw.

Once prepared, the framework would be presented to the community for additional discussion after which an omnibus bylaw would be presented to council to enact short term rental regulation throughout the community.

Sorfleet was not surprised the survey showed mixed opinions on STRs.

“This illustrates how members of the community have opposite views on the same issue,” he said.

As a former manager of Planning and Development for the Town of Canmore, Alberta, Sorfleet said he’s been dealing with the issue for over 10 years.

Rather than try and regulate STRs, the Town of Canmore put a prohibition on them but the wording of the prohibition kept getting tweaked as loopholes were found, said Sorfleet.

“The closest I can give as an example is you could fix one loophole and then another would pop up, like whack-a-mole,” he said.

“The economics were such that even with hefty penalties, the amount people could make was too much to deter them,” he said. “The lesson I learned there was that if someone wants to do it, they’ll do it no matter what you say unless you’ve got a really big hammer. And there isn’t a big hammer.”

He said regulation and not prohibition of STRs would be a more effective way of mitigating their impacts on the community.

“I hope what we come up with will work well for Fernie,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it will work in every situation. That would be naïve.”