State of the City Address Highlights Concerns Over STR Issue

Mayor Outlines Big Improvements In Services and Infrastructure

Rick Langenberg

Although Woodland Park has made huge strides in such areas as employee retention, infrastructure enhancements and fiscal responsibility, the heated issue of short-term rentals, ended up as the prime entree in the annual breakfast/state of the city address, delivered last week by Mayor Hilary LaBarre.

The annual event, sponsored this year by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and UCHealth and held at the Ute Pass Cultural Center, outlined a spree of plans and projects undertaken by the city, including the ability to pay off an $800,000 debt for Memorial Park improvements. LaBarre made it clear that residents should expect major infrastructure improvements due to the city’s good financial situation and ability to retire this debt much earlier than required.

More importantly, the mayor announced the city has made huge improvements in retaining employees. “We believe we are headed in the right direction,” said LaBarre, who admitted the city got hit hard by the Great Retirement trend from the pandemic and many personnel departures of key officials.

But as expected, the short-term rental fight stole the show.

This issue, centering on the explosion of bids for vacation homes with the growth of internet lodging sites and certain “enjoy our home” tourism opportunities for property owners, has ignited huge political sparks in the last few months. Some recent STR meetings have extended for more than four hours and even led to a walkout by a few council members on one occasion.

Now, the city is confronted with two citizen petition efforts; one that seeks an outright ban on  STRs in residential neighborhoods and another that would do away with the previously adopted STR moratorium.

Most likely, the issue appears headed for a city vote.

As a result of this controversy, many attendees of the annual breakfast and “state of the city” address, wanted to know what is next for government leaders in grappling with this hot political potato.

During her talk, LaBarre laid out the city’s center of the road position in allowing STRs, but imposing definite rules and authorizing an impact study.

At times, she faced vocal criticism from a few attendees who questioned the city’s action with the explosion of STRs.

But the mayor stood firm in defending the city’s center of the road position in grappling with the STR issue. “This is America,” said LaBarre. “Everyone is allowed to purchase property. I don’t believe in us regulating people in purchasing property. It (the STR process) allows the opportunity to own a second home.”

That said, the mayor admitted city officials need more information to compile a detailed  STR policy assessment.  “We didn’t think we had an adequate amount of information,” said LaBarre, who admitted the council’s position fluctuated from a complete ban on future STRs, in residential neighborhoods, to one that permitted vacation homes in residential areas, but set more clear-cut standards.

And contrary to certain reports, the mayor stated that the vast majority of applicants seeking STR licenses in Woodland Park are not out-of-state company representatives, but rather are local individuals trying to foot the bill for their mortgage.

Still, many believe the city should do  more to protect neighborhoods, and are questioning exactly how much the town would generate from having more STR licenses. STR critics say the town is basically at siege by STR applicants, with close to 200 already being proposed. They say the quality of life of residential neighborhoods is at risk. These views have prompted a referendum against the council’s recent decision to open the door for STR licenses in residential neighborhoods (see related story).

Other Issues of Concern

Besides the heated STR issue, the  mayor stressed the city is headed in the right direction. She cited the current council as one with differing viewpoints, but a panel that has agreed to disagree, and then opts to move on.  This meeting atmosphere is slightly different from previous years, especially immediately following the death of former Mayor Val Carr.  The council then featured  much in-fighting and couldn’t even come to terms on a mayoral replacement.

“We have our differences, but we work together professionally,” said LaBarre.

She cited a slew of  grants the city has pursued, and announce forthcoming plans for a detailed housing assessment. The mayor admitted housing affordability is a huge challenge locally “We want to help people who work here.”

LaBarre painted a fairly rosy picture of the city’s future prospects

For the most part, the mayor encountered a receptive audience, except when the topic of STRs hit center stage.

But LaBarre cautioned the meeting attendees that the city’s hands are basically tied on this issue, until the various petition efforts get played out in determining whether an adequate number of signatures are collected to force the council to reconsider their previous positions or to have a special election.

Business owner and former county commissioner and U.S. Congress candidate Carl Andersen, though, raised a red flag about growing government regulations and rising costs for seniors.

“Regulations hurt businesses and our economy,” blasted Andersen, who is afraid the leaders may adopt even tougher standards that could further up the costs. He expressed reservations about the continual discussion on more city studies. “Studies don’t do it. Government needs to get out of the way. Stop over-regulating,” said Andersen.