Will the Short-Term Rental Fight Ever End? Woodland Park Sued Over Voter-Approved STR Ordinance

Residents on Both Sides of the Battle Lines Await Court’s Decision

Trevor Phipps


After the special election came to a conclusion late last year, many Woodland Park residents had their fingers crossed, and hoped that the controversy surrounding short-term rentals (STRs) had finally come to an end.

Well, no such luck prevailed, as the STR saga lives on in Woodland Park.

In fact, on the exact day of the city’s regularly scheduled municipal election (April 2, 2024), a lawsuit was filed against Woodland Park. In essence, this legal action maintained that the STR ordinance, passed by voters in a special election, was illegal and unconstitutional.


The lawsuit reignites the controversy surrounding STR businesses that has divided the city over the last two years. On one side, the group that put the Ordinance 1469 pertaining to STR properties on the ballot has fought hard to ban non-owner occupied STRs in residential neighborhoods.


On the other side, a group of STR owners calling themselves the “Teller County Short Term Rental Alliance” has argued against the ordinance from day one, saying that the law illegally strips STR owners of their investments. The group, represented by former school board member David Illingworth, then filed a lawsuit against the city and all of the former city council members in their official capacity on April 2, making several claims that the new STR ordinance is unlawful.


The complaint, filed in court, outlines nine grievances the group has against the measure that was passed by voters late last year. One big issue the lawsuit brings up is the fact that all current STR business owners, who have properties in residentially zoned neighborhoods, will be forced to sell their properties once the new law goes into effect at the end of this year.


The lawsuit claims that the ordinance is unlawfully taking away businesses that were operating in the city legally before the ordinance was passed. According to Mary Sekowski who owns an STR property in the city and is named in the lawsuit, the city expanded the lodging tax definition in 2017 to collect lodging taxes from STR owners.


“Every STR owner since that has purchased a home for the purpose of short term renting has done so under the presumption that they are completely within the laws of the city of Woodland Park to legally run a short term rental business,” Sekowski said.


She said that the ordinance, recently approved by the voters in Woodland Park, was different than others passed in various municipalities across the country. “Most other cities that have passed short term rental regulations have some sort of legacy licensing provision for those that are currently operational and have been operational for years,” Sekowski explained. “Certainly, that’s a foundation of what we are challenging.”


The lawsuit also claims that the ordinance is unconstitutional since the STRs that are allowed under the ordinance can’t have more than 12 people, or more than two people per room, renting a home short term. The complaint filed in court states that many STR owners rent to people that hold wedding parties and family reunions and that barring more than 12 people from an STR property violates the citizens’ right to assemble outlined in the First Amendment.


Sekowski also said that she thinks the new STR ordinance will be hard for city officials to enforce because it will be difficult to tell if the owner lives full time at an STR property. “Ordinance 1469 encroaches upon protected First Amendment rights by denying a property owner who must be hospitalized for two weeks from having his adult daughter house sit,” the lawsuit states. “A homeowner on vacation for a week would likewise be prohibited from allowing another person to utilize their primary residence to take care of pets.”


Proponents of Sterner STR Regulations Defend the New Law

But during the year-long petition effort, members of the group called “Preserving Neighborhood Character in Woodland Park” argued that STR businesses should never have been allowed in residential neighborhoods from the beginning due to current zoning laws. According to former Woodland Park City Councilman Frank Connors, who supported the citizens’ initiative, the new ordinance is not taking away legitimate businesses from people because technically they were never operating legally based on how the city’s zoning laws were written.


“The bottom line is, it has never been legal in the city of Woodland Park,” Connors said. “It has always been a code issue. If you look in the use code, lodging businesses were originally only permitted in commercial zones.”


According to Jerry Penland, who recently lost a bid for mayor earlier this month by a close margin and spearheaded the charge to get the STR ordinance passed, made sure their proposal met the legal requirements.

He also said that the group based their successful ballot issue on ordinances that have been passed by other cities in Colorado. “We looked at ordinances all over the state and we didn’t do anything that we considered radically different from any of them,” Penland said.


But as for now, it is up to the court to decide the fate of STR businesses in Woodland Park. If the judge rules that the ordinance is unlawful, the issue will go back to city council to determine what should be done to regulate STR businesses.