After nearly two years of fierce debates surrounding the existence and possible explosive growth of short term-rental (STR) properties in Woodland Park, the drama has finally come to a conclusion.
During a special election that ended the evening of Dec. 12, WP citizens voted by a nearly 60 percent to ban non-owner occupied STR businesses in residential neighborhoods. This tally could provide the final death notice to a huge potential boom for STR investment efforts throughout neighborhoods in Woodland Park.
The results of the election came in just after 8 p.m. on Dec. 12 when 2,294 or around 40 percent of the ballots were tallied. Even though there are still 67 ballots left to be counted, the margin was large enough to the point that City Clerk Suzanne Leclercq was able to call the election in favor of the citizens’ initiative. This is the first citizens’ initiative that has become successful in Woodland Park in several decades.
The first question on the ballot, drafted by a group of citizens, received 1,347 “yes” votes and 943 “no” votes. The second question, crafted by the city’s planning commission and city council, got 693 “yes” votes and 1,592 “no” votes.
City officials said that they were thrilled with the turnout since it took place at a different time than most city, state or county elections. Plus, it was a special election, meaning that having a good turnout could be difficult. The last council election, held in April, generated a 50 percent turnout.
The conclusion comes after formal opposition began mounting regarding the invasion of STR properties about two years ago. Then the group, who wrote the recently-passed initiative, officially started their campaign against non-owner occupied STR businesses in residential neighborhoods a year ago. At the time, they successfully repealed an STR ordinance passed by city council.
According to Jerry Penland who was one of the group’s organizers that drafted the approved ballot question, the group of citizens was happy with the recent outcome. “The citizens asked through the referendum petition to have their voice heard in a special election,” Penland said. “The citizens’ voice has now been heard and the citizens’ ordinance will become law.”
But he did point out that even though the ordinance passed, nothing will change with STR properties until December 31, 2024. People who own STR businesses currently can try to reapply for an STR business license at the first of the year, and continue to operate until the end of next year.
“We gave them a year and 19 days to keep their license,” Penland explained. “They have a transition period to phase out investor-owned motels operating in our single-family residential neighborhoods. That wouldn’t be fair to have them phase out in a few days. They have options to phase out. They could move into their house. They could rent it long term. They could sell it. There is no government taking here. We are just stopping them from operating in places where our zoning code does not allow.”
Since the issue hit the forefront of local politics, the city council has been split with some members agreeing with the citizens’ initiative. However, other high-profile leaders wanted the ordinance drafted by the council and planning commission. Councilman Frank Connors, who ran on the premise of trying to ban STR businesses in residential neighborhoods, was a vocal supporter of Ballot Question #1.
Connors said that he was happy with the turnout at the special election. Moreover, he pointed out that the results clearly showed how local residents feel about this issue, with more than 1,500 people voting “no” on the council’s ordinance. The council’s ordinance would have permitted STRs in residential neighborhoods, with certain guidelines, even if the properties were owned by outside investors.
“I’m extremely proud of the effort that was put forward,” Connors said. “It wasn’t just my neighborhood it was many other neighborhoods. It makes me proud that the citizens of Woodland Park know and understand what they want in their neighborhoods and short term lodging businesses are not one of them.”
Mayor Pro Tem Kellie Case, on the other hand, has vocally supported regulations and caps on STR properties. She also was one of the proponents for the passage of the second ballot question that opposed banning STRs in residential neighborhoods.
“I would just like to thank the voters for their participation and making the choice,” Case said. “It was not an easy choice. I can’t say I’m disappointed, I just want to thank the public for making the decision. It was a tough one and I think it was appropriate for them to make the choice.”
Moving forward, STR businesses will still be allowed in the city inside commercial zones. There is currently a moratorium on new STR business licenses that expires in April, but those who currently have STR business licenses will be allowed to operate until the end of 2024.
However, the recent decision made by the voters could set a precedence on steps that other communities in the region will take in the future. Teller County officials have said that they were waiting on the outcome of the election, and specifically what happened with STRs in Woodland Park, before they started looking into STR regulations at the county level.
Earlier this year, the county commissioners sent out a letter to residents, indicating they were going to start researching the impact of STR businesses in the county, and possible way to regulate these properties, starting in 2024.