The special meeting of the Wahkon City Council, held prior to their regular meeting at 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 8, drew a small crowd of community members as the meeting featured a public hearing on a proposed ordinance prohibiting short-term vacation rentals in the city. The public hearing saw a number of people speaking both for and against the ordinance. Ultimately, an ambivalent council chose to table the issue and continue the meeting at a later date as they wanted to hear from the councilor unable to attend the night’s meeting in-person.
As laid out in the text of the new ordinance, the City’s existing zoning ordinance allows for vacation rentals with the issuance of an interim-use permit in the City’s mixed municipal zone. Currently, these vacation rentals can include the rental of single family dwelling for a period of less than 30 days consecutive days.
The ordinance further states that council has received a number of complaints from property owners adjacent to such short term rentals, concerning “noise, parking and other negative impacts arising from short-term renters vacationing in the mixed municipal district. Upon considering its options to regulate short-term vacation rentals to avoid or minimize the nuisances arising, the ordinance proposed to prohibit such rentals.
The ordinance further indicated that rentals for periods longer than 30 days would still be allowed, and sections on definitions indicated that bed and breakfasts, motels, hotels, and resort rooms would not be included under the definition of short-term rental. While interim-use permits will not be issued under the new ordinance, any pre-established permits would remain in effect with their original terms and conditions.
Opposition to the ordinance
When the hearing officially opened to the public, Wahkon resident Michael Temte came forward, stating he took issue with a lack of clear definitions within the ordinance. While Temte said he opposed local properties being used in the fashion of Airbnbs, he wanted clarification on whether bed and breakfasts would still be allowed. Darrin Welle, a planning and zoning specialist working for Wahkon through Sourcewell, later responded that bed and breakfasts would not be included in the definition of short-term rental due to the management on site, much in the same way a motel and hotel didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the ordinance.
Local business owner Rob Dubbs spoke against the ordinance. “I would like to see you reconsider this measure,” Dubbs began. “... there are other things you can do besides ban short-term completely.” As small resorts have disappeared from the area, Dubbs explained that Airbnbs and short-term rentals have taken their place. He described them as an asset to draw tourists into the community to support local businesses.
Dubbs suggested that enforcement of the City’s noise ordinance could be a measure to address the issue, rather than the ban. “If I was shooting off fireworks at 3 a.m. and waking you up and you don’t want to come over and yell at me, you’d call the sheriff, and they’d come take care of it,” Dubbs said. He further suggested making the voluntary lodging tax mandatory as had been done in Isle. As short-term rental programs like Airbnb and Vrbo usually have limits on the number of people at property, Dubbs said that adherence to those limits could also help to mitigate issues.
Brian Lee, owner of a short-term rental property in the City, stated that he believed it was the position of most cities to support small businesses, and he noted that tourism was a major source of business for the area. He cited rental bans in Savage and Bloomington, stating that those communities weren’t comparative to Mille Lacs. He added that the rest of the lake community seems to have found ways to regulate and make short-term rentals work for them. All pre-existing issues had occurred while there was no regulation in place, he said, and an effort to regulate such rentals in Wahkon should come before they are banned.
Linda Albertson, a local property owner living adjacent to a rental property where issues have previously arisen, responded to Dubbs suggestions. Albertson said she understood that the ordinance could negatively impact businesses, but added, “I think the council has done a good thing, and they decided that we do not have the ability to enforce these rules.” Noting the noise ordinance, Albert said that it has taken the sheriff’s office hours to respond to such calls. Temte built on Albertson’s point, saying that the Sheriff’s office is going to have to prioritize their calls. “We have no way to enforce this,” he said, “except through [the city council] and through an ordinance.”
Butch Bollig, another Wahkon citizen, stated that he didn’t think that businesses in the area are obligated to help other businesses. “I’m retired here,” he said, “I don’t care about that.” Bollig described Wahkon as a retirement town with many retired residents. He didn’t believe businesses should bring in people to disturb that retirement atmosphere. “We don’t need somebody coming in, celebrating their good weekend or their anniversary or whatever with a whole bunch of people.” He expressed concern that as more properties in the town were sold, more short-term rentals could continue to crop up. “I’m not saying we have to stop it completely, but we need some sort of rules, regulations, or so forth.”
Once the public hearing closed, Mayor Ronda Bjornson and councilor Brenda Buck both indicated that they saw valid concerns on both sides of the issue. Bjornson raised her concern about the town becoming heavy handed with its ordinances. “Isle doesn’t regulate this. The county doesn’t regulate this. Why don’t they?” she asked. Bjornson also stated that whatever decision the Council made would have to be something they were able to enforce.
“Do we as a council have enough information to make an informed decision, or is this a knee jerk reaction to one circumstance?” Bjornson also asked. Councilor Chip Fredrickson replied that a petition had circulated around Wahkon’s residences, garnering around 46 signatures. “That answers the question for me if this is a knee-jerk reaction,” Fredrickson said. “I don’t think it is.” He said that conversation has been on-going since last summer with a petition still being relevant. “If you want to get into this business,” he concluded, “go buy a resort.”
Councilor Rick Roberts added that, in addition to the petition, the City had also received a number of emails. “So it was more than 46.”
Buck stated that she didn’t feel she was in a position to make an informed decision. While she was understanding of residents not wanting to have random strangers vacationing next to their homes, she added that she hated seeing the town so empty in terms of business, and she didn’t want to drive any more away. “I’m not prepared to give a ‘yes-or-no’ answer,” she said. “I lean both ways depending on how I think about it.”
Tony Button was unable to attend the planning commission meeting due to technical difficulties related to video conferencing, and multiple council members indicated they did not want to make a decision without his input. The council voted to continue the commission meeting at a later date, and after conversation, set that continuation before their regularly scheduled April 12 council meeting, at 5 p.m. The special meeting was adjourned with the ordinance, as of yet, unapproved.