Don't shut out vacation rentals

Residents of cities that depend on tourism as an economic base have to be willing to put up with some inconveniences: among them traffic, out-of-towners crowding their favorite hangouts and old guys with white legs wearing Bermuda shorts.

We would add to that list having tourists live among us, at least temporarily. Part of what makes the Ashland experience unique is that visitors here are not housed in giant chain hotels. Instead they use small motels, the one-of-a-kind Ashland Springs Hotel, bed and breakfast inns and, yes, vacation rentals offered by local homeowners.

The city is discussing whether that last option should be more heavily regulated or perhaps made illegal entirely. We think that while some fairness needs to be brought into the equation, vacation home rentals should be allowed in Ashland's neighborhoods.

The issue arose because local bed and breakfast operators complained that many private vacation home owners were reaping the benefit of Ashland's tourism trade but shouldering none of the burden. That's true and should be addressed. But it should not be outlawed.

The vacation homes in this conversation are private homes in single-family residential areas that are rented out for short periods of time to visitors. There are estimates of anywhere from 50 to 150 such homes in Ashland, a fact that has stirred the local bed and breakfast association — and City Hall — into action. In May the city sent out 40 notices to property owners informing them they were illegally renting their houses to tourists.

The city does not allow rental terms of less than 30 days in residential areas, which makes it unlikely many, if any, tourists would be able to use local homes during their stays here. That seems too restrictive to us.

Bed and breakfast owners rightly argue that it's unfair to expect them to pay lodging taxes and business license fees while competing with homeowners who make no such payments. They say the homes should meet the same or at least similar standards, if they want to rent to tourists.

The council has also expressed concern that the rentals are somehow harming residential areas, but that seems no more likely than if they were traditional rentals. In fact, they are likely being kept up much better because the owners, not the renters, are doing the work.

We think there can be a happy medium here. Private homes rented out for short periods should pay a lodging tax and should be required to register with the city, for a minimal fee. They should also be required to show proof of insurance.

But they should not be required to submit to city inspections or to attempt to navigate through the Byzantine land-use process. A single home being rented to a single group is different than a bed and breakfast that rents to multiple groups and serves meals. There should be a lower, more affordable threshold, otherwise they will continue to operate illegally, if at all.

Those who want to preserve Ashland's livability — and that should all of us — need to recognize that tourism is part of the lifeblood of the community. We can't keep shutting off the veins that support that lifeblood and expect no consequences.

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