Council votes to allow bed-and-baths in neighborhoods

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Pawhuska City Councilors voted, 4-0, on July 13 to define short-term, bed-and-bath rentals as an acceptable property use in residential areas.

The vote responded to a recommendation by the municipal Board of Adjustments/Planning Commission, and reflected a growing investment in short-term lodging for visitors to the city. The council had discussed the issue in detail June 8 and appeared ready to make a decision, but questions surfaced about the potential desirability of inspections for bed-and-baths. The council tabled the question to gain more information.

The council’s decision not to act in June left in place a situation where bed-and-bath businesses were openly in operation with no legal authority from city government.

City Attorney John Heskett told councilors July 13 that they could revisit the issue later to create a more-regulated business environment for bed-and-baths, but the fundamental legal question of their acceptability in residential neighborhoods needed to be officially resolved.

“They’re here, and there’s no way you’re going to get them to leave,” Heskett told the council. Councilors Mark Buchanan, Amber Nash, Roger Taylor and Steve Tolson voted in favor of the change. Councilor Rodger Milleson was absent.

The July 13 discussion of bed-and-baths was spread over several agenda items – a citizen comment in opposition to bed-and-baths in residential neighborhoods; an economic development report that praised bed-and-baths as a growing element of the local economy; and, finally, the discussion of the proposed ordinance making them an officially accepted residential property use.

Kelly Bland, executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce, told councilors in a report July 13 that bed-and-bath businesses represent a growing sector of the city’s economy.

“At no cost to the city, investors have built several new homes and renovated several older homes and turned them into short-term rentals in Pawhuska,” Bland said in her monthly report to the council. The property development activities are generating additional sales tax revenues, she said.

Bland said additional residential property renovations are in progress, and she urged the council to encourage investors in bed-and-bath businesses by “keeping codes and ordinances to a minimum with a focus of public safety rather than regulation.”

Code Enforcement Officer Steve Hughes clarified that he is not opposed to bed-and-baths, but he expressed concern about their effect on the community.

“I am for Airbnbs. I want them, but I’m the one that gets all the complaints,” Hughes said. “I don’t have all the answers.”

Hughes indicated he had done research and had found numerous articles about bed-and-baths disrupting small towns.

Mayor Roger Taylor, who explained he had personal experience with a bed-and-bath in his neighborhood that did not make a positive impression on him, commented that not everyone favors businesses in neighborhoods.

The council also heard July 13 from resident Jerry Koenig, who was unhappy about the presence of bed-and-baths in residential neighborhoods. Koenig, who spoke prior to the council’s vote on the issue, said he had searched municipal ordinances without finding any legal authority for bed-and-baths in neighborhoods.

“I’ve been reading through the city ordinances for two weeks,” Koenig said. “Why are they being allowed to have a business in residential neighborhoods when there’s no ordinance that says that’s permissible?”

Koenig said there is a bed-and-bath near his home.

“I know my neighbors, but I don’t know these people,” Koenig said.

Later in the overall discussion, he was asked directly by a council member if he had experienced any problems with bed-and-bath guests, and Koenig mentioned that a man had urinated outdoors in the very early hours of a morning.

“That’s something that we have to see,” Interim Police Chief Lorrie Hennesy said, explaining the difficulty of citing someone for outdoor urination.

“I did try to get my camera,” Koenig said.

Stuart Tolson, who is a member of the city Board of Adjustments/Planning Commission, said the issue could have been resolved earlier, but the City Council didn’t act in June.

Tolson also emphasized to Koenig the economic investment being made by bed-and-bath operators and chided him for appearing to be suspicious of outsiders.

“I’m sorry you’re afraid of outsiders, because they’re bringing money to this community,” Tolson said.

Businessman and resident Bruce Malone told the council that there is a sense in which the bed-and-bath business is self-regulating. He said that if bed-and-bath operators don’t have safety items such as working smoke detectors, they get bad online reviews and potential guests stop making reservations to stay in their properties.

“We’re being inspected by the public all of the time,” Malone said, venturing the assessment that bed-and-baths are probably in better shape than regular, long-term rental properties in Pawhuska.

“I agree,” Hennesy said, reflecting on her visits to long-term rentals in her capacity as a police officer. “I’m in a lot of these houses. I agree with him.”