CAMDEN COUNTY, Mo. — County commissioners are frantically working to change the law, after a judge ruled the county’s land use code does not allow for short-term rentals in some homes.
At issue is Camden County’s Unified Land Use Code (“the Code”), which establishes zoning in Camden County — telling property owners how they may and may not use their property. The zoning district doesn’t apply to the entire county, but it encompasses all waterfront homes in the county. Judge Matt Hamner, in deciding a dispute between two neighbors, ruled that the Code does not allow homes in R-1 zoning (which is the primary zoning for most homes) to be rented on a nightly basis.
Vacation home rentals are the lifeblood of the Lake of the Ozarks tourism economy: the number of annual visitors to the Lake—estimated to be several million—could not be accommodated by all the existing hotels and resorts, even at full capacity. And for boaters throughout the Midwest, the dream of owning a Lake of the Ozarks waterfront home is made possible in part by the ability to rent that home to vacationers.
If Judge Hamner’s interpretation were applied to all the homes within Camden County’s Planning & Zoning district, it would be catastrophic for untold thousands of homes on the Lake, and Camden County Commissioners know it. So they met on Friday morning, March 25, to work on changing the code.
Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty said he did not believe the specifics of the ruling actually prohibited short-term rentals, but that the language of it could be a threat to them.
“We just can’t have a court ruling come down that radically changes what’s going on at the Lake right now,” Hasty said.
However, attorney Greg Williams—who has recently been contracted by the county to work on a rewrite of the code and whose advice the commission sought for this matter—was less concerned about the Hamner case, since he said it was only a circuit ruling and didn’t set court precedent.
“In my opinion, it’s premature and unnecessary [to change the land use code]. You are the legislative body who [wrote] the zoning code.” Williams said he didn’t think a court decision that could actually shut down short-term rentals would happen “under the facts of this case or any other case because the court of appeals have previously held that it doesn’t work that way. There are court of appeals decisions that uphold the short term rental in the R-1 zoning district.”
Williams went on to say that if this were to happen, although he continued to stress its unlikeliness, as the legislative body the commission would be able to adopt legislation that says that short term rentals are allowed in an R-1 zoning district. Hasty, however, stated that he would prefer to fix this issue ahead of any possible issue.
“I would really prefer to address that now rather than later,” Hasty said.
Multiple citizens came forward in support of short term rentals as well as some who spoke about their negative experiences living near short-term vacation rentals and requested that the commission do something to limit negative impact on the community. One woman spoke about her worries as a realtor.
“I’m just going to speak as a real estate agent and my concerns for all the people who bought in the last two years. There’s so many people that came here with the expectation that they bought a short-term rental, it’s their piggy bank, it’s their retirement, they’re going to leave it to their children. And if we take that away from them, I’ll be honest, I’m going to get my ass sued off,” said a realtor who spoke in front of the commission. “I guarantee you if we did away with short-term rentals, the full weight of the National Associations of Realtors would come down on us and it would be really messy.”
Hasty went on to suggest that the commission should:
1. add “short-term rental” as a definition under the code, defined as rentals of a property for less than 30 days and nights,
2. clarify that short-term rentals are allowed in the planning and zoning district as long as the use aligns with the permitted zoning (e.g. a residential home being rented as a residence, not as a commercial space)
Hasty also wanted to add a section about allowing an HOA to restrict short-term rentals under the guidelines of that HOA. There was some concern from Williams about the legality of that.
Other possible edits for the Code were discussed, including a new section on tiny homes at the Lake. After the decision by the commission, these edits were referred to Greg Williams to write the legal language.
Judge Hamner wrote in his ruling:
“…Defendant Powell’s property is zoned R-1 Residential under the Code. The evidence at trial established that while continuing to live at the property, Defendant Powell has been renting portions of her home out to nightly guests for the past two years. Plaintiffs’ contend this is a violation of the restrictions of the Code. Defendant Powell argues that this is an authorized ‘accessory use’ to her single-family residential property under the Code…
“After reviewing the Code, the related context and definitions and the facts of this case, the Court finds that Defendant Powell’s use of her property for nightly rentals in this case is not an “accessory use” of her single-family residential property. To accept Defendant Powell’s argument that such rentals are permitted because they give her the income to live in the home would be to authorize any commercial or multi-family use of an R-1, single-family property for that purpose. The Court does not glean such an intent from the context and content of the Code.”
The judge then ruled that the defendant in the case could no longer rent out her property on a nightly basis, as it violated the ULUC.
Judge Hamner’s ruling carries the presumption that what isn’t explicitly allowed in the Code is inherently prohibited. This seems in line with Section 816 of the Code, “Supplemental Zoning Provisions,” which states, “all uses that are not listed as a principal permitted use in a zoning district, even given the liberal interpretation mandated by Subsection (1 ), are prohibited.
The “Accessory Uses” portion of the Code for R-1 does not mention nightly rentals. Thus, Hamner determined, they are not permitted. The only use of the word “rental” in that section is a prohibition against them, in the case of an attached or above-garage apartment built on the property. However, the “Special Use Permit” section for R-1 does allow for a home to be used as a bed and breakfast, if a permit is obtained from the county.
However, Section 816, “Supplemental Zoning Provisions,” does state, “the following activities, so long as they satisfy the general criteria set forth above, are specifically regarded as accessory to residential principal uses:… The renting out of one room within a single-family residence (as long as the room does not constitute a separate dwelling unit) to not more than two persons who are not part of the family that resides in the residence.”
Whether that or other provisions were meant to cover the use of short-term rentals, it makes little difference now. Commissioners say they’re going to update the Code to make sure homeowners and home-buyers know vacation-renting their Lake home is on the table.