The Town of Canmore is proceeding towards tougher enforcement options with homeowners in the community who have decided to rent their residential properties illegally online to visitors.
The municipality brought on extra planning staff this summer on a contract basis to help investigate complaints in the community and increase awareness about illegal vacation rentals through popular websites like Airbnb and vacaction Rentals by Owner (VRBO).
Under the land use bylaw, only properties zoned for nightly rentals are permitted as overnight accommodation for visitors. For the most part, residential properties are not zoned to be used in that way, which has led to complaints in the community and rising concerns over the erosion of housing inventory for residents.
Manager of planning, Alaric Fish, said so far efforts have been focused on education, but compliance has not been forthcoming from all property owners and, as a result ,the next step is being taken – stop orders and $2,500 fines.
“We are expecting tomorrow (Wednesday, Sept. 13) to issue stop orders and violation tags for short term rentals and the penalty is $2,500 for the first offence,” Fish told council on Tuesday (Sept. 12). “If people do not wish to receive the $2,500 ticket, we encourage them to cease advertising the use of their property for short term vacation rentals.”
For those residents of the community that have struggled with illegal vacation rentals, like Victoria Mitchell, enforcement of the bylaws has been a long time coming.
Mitchell has been making complaints about an illegal rental next door to her in a duplex, where her neighbour has split their unit into two and has been renting out the upstairs portion of the residential property for the last 13 months.
“As far as enforcement is concerned, I appreciate there is a plan, but it is not being enforced,” she said at a public hearing of council on Tuesday (Sept. 12). “When the unit is rented out, and it has been rented out for most of the summer, I got a party going on beside me.
“The tourists do not have much regard for the people living next door.”
She said she has endured a hot tub, fire pit and outdoor speakers on her neighbour’s deck, just three metres form her bedroom, and every time a tourist arrives her and her husband call the Town to file a complaint.
Mitchell said illegal nightly rentals are destroying the community she holds near and dear and if it weren’t for her husband, she would have sold and left already.
“We purposely bought in where we are living in a large part because it was a community,” she said. “If I wanted to live in a hotel, I would have bought in other parts of town.”
Mitchell spoke up at the public hearing into changes for the Land Use Byalw that are intended to make it easier for homeowners in single family homes and duplexes to develop legal suites.
She questioned why council would consider making it easier to build suites, and create more opportunity for them to be used illegally, when the bylaw is not currently being enforced.
Canmore’s experience is not unique, with other tourism-based communities like Banff and Whistler experiencing the same problem with residentially zoned homes being used for overnight stays.
Fish said 50 to 60 properties in the community under investigation as a result of complaints received from the public. But the stop order and violation ticket of $2,500 are a last resort when it comes to how administration is dealing with the issue.
Fish said in each circumstance, the property owner has been contacted and informed they are in breach of the regulations. He said some did not realize what they were doing was not permitted and stopped; some have applied to become legal bed and breakfast operations under the bylaw; some have ignored warnings and continue to operate as a vacation rental.
It is the latter group that could expect to see town staff on their doorstep beginning this week with the stop order, issued under the Municipal Government Act, and the fine. Fish said the potential revenue from operating an illegal vacation home is significant, which means the fine has to be significant too. The second offence comes with a $5,000 fine, he said, and fines can accumulate on a daily basis if the stop order is ignored.
“I think awareness has really risen in the community on this issue,” he said. “We urge people to comply with the bylaw and not advertise their property for short term rentals.
“Enforcement is our last resort.”
Fish said the municipality is prepared to defend the stop orders in court, if they are challenged by the property owner. Part of the issue with enforcement, he added, is that the bylaw as written has not stood up to legal challenges in the past. Stop orders on illegal vacation rentals of residential properties have been overturned at the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.
While the focus on the issue in the short term is getting compliance in the community with the bylaw, Fish said he also expects to undertake a review of all the regulations around tourist homes as part of the Land Use Bylaw review.
That process could examine the possibility of legalizing short-term rentals of residential properties with mechanisms to manage how that is done.
Fish said preliminary discussions have occurred with one online company that represents homeowners looking to rent their space, and they would like the municipality to consider “broader legalization opportunities with controls and management over short term rentals.”
One example of a regulation that could be put in place to control short-term rentals is to require the space being rented to be part of a home. Fish said the idea being that the primary use remains residential with the homeowner living there, and prevents entire homes in neighbourhoods from being rented out to visitors.