Many property owners believe they have a right to do what they want with their property and therefore decry zoning ordinances.
Moscow and Pullman both face challenges to their zoning regulations, many of which have been poorly enforced, if at all.
Pullman city officials recently discovered that its prohibition against short-term rental in Residential 1 and Residential 2 zones is being broadly violated.
I have every confidence that many of the violators are unaware of the zoning prohibition as well as protective covenants and contractual limitations in loan contracts.
The city is now studying the problem and there will no doubt be strong pressure from people engaged in Airbnb short-term rentals, or who want to do so, to change zoning to allow them to convert their neighborhoods into motels.
In 1926, the United States Supreme Court decided that city codes can regulate against inappropriate use of property. This usually is called a nuisance.
The case was Village of Eclid v. Amber Realty Co. It involved a challenge of Eclid’s zoning ordinance that prohibited nuisance use of private property.
Writing the majority opinion, Justice George Sutherland, strongly defended code regulation of nuisance uses of property, saying: “A nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place — like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.”
If I may suggest a less olfactory offense than Justice Sutherland’s example, a rose bush in the middle of a sidewalk or path would be a nuisance that a city would be within its rights to regulate against.
Pullman scuttlebutt is rife with examples of Airbnb-related infractions of the city’s residential codes, which don’t allow for short-term rentals.
They include residents doing Airbnb rentals of their driveways for motorhome or RV trailer parking, or renting their entire homes for a weekend, as well as renting rooms.
Without question, most of this activity has proceeded with little fuss or bother; but it has been and remains illegal.
The law requires property owners engaged in short-term rentals be licensed, report earnings and pay taxes.
Pullman and Moscow need to address many issues associated with Airbnb and other companies that offer short-term rental opportunities.
This new industry is fostered and supported by companies such as Airbnb that operate through the World Wide Web.
It is a classic example of new technology raising not only new opportunities, but also new problems.
Code adjustments would seem appropriate; but only if they deal with legitimate issues instead of simply side-stepping them.
A casual perusal of the Web provides abundant evidence of Airbnb rental units that consist of treehouses, old rehabbed school buses still painted yellow, pop-up camp trailers, and other improbable shelters.
I’ve even seen a picture of one Airbnb lodging that consisted of a bed in a garage with a blanket hung for “privacy.”
Is it not a nuisance to allow Airbnb in neighborhoods filled with homes costing $300,000-$500,000?
Cities have a responsibility to responsibly regulate business activities. That includes licensing and oversight. Some requirements should ensure that:
— Property owners have insurance that covers short-term rental activities.
— That the activity complies with homeowner association contracts.
— That the activity complies with provisions of relevant commercial loans.
— Does the city have real intent to enforce zoning codes?
— Pullman might well also investigate other business activities in residential areas.
These are but a few of the things cities need to give attention in any consideration of changing current residential ordinances.
Terence L. Day is a journalist and retired Washington State University faculty member. He welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org