Weston bed & breakfast debate continues

The well-trodden subject of short-term vacation rentals again popped up at the Weston board of aldermen meeting this week.

At the Monday, Feb. 12 board meeting, mayor Cliff Harvey said the city had received a letter from community member and long-time businessman and volunteer Jeff Elsea, suggesting the city again address the matter. He alleged there are bed and breakfasts operating in the city that do not meet the legal requirements because they don’t serve breakfast. In one case, the owners provide guests with vouchers to eat breakfast at a local restaurant.

“People expect when you stay in someone’s home you get fed breakfast in the morning,” Elsea said, adding every bed and breakfast he and his wife have patronized across the country served breakfast.

With city attorney Jeremy Webb absent, city clerk Kim Kirby told the board that Webb had sent a memo to board members about the bed and breakfast with no breakfast situation. It was still unclear if this constituted an actual violation of the ordinance, though further investigation was under way.

Elsea expressed frustration with the city’s seeming inability to end the debate over short-term rentals, a situation which has been ongoing for several years now. While licensed bed and breakfast operations are legal, rentals where no property owners are present on premises — such as many rentals brokered through online conduits such as Airbnb and VRBO — are prohibited.

“I share your frustration,” said aldermen Joyce Burch. “I brought this up last month because I thought there might be another Airbnb opening up in town. Outside this room, people don’t understand that they’re not allowed.”

Kirby suggested sending a letter to all current bed and breakfast owners that included copies of the ordinances governing bed and breakfasts, reminding them to stick to the letter of the law.

Harvey suggested adding a paragraph to the ordinance, specifying that the prohibited short-term rentals are actually illegal. Kirby said the wording of any amendment would need to be carefully made because zoning codes are intended to describe permitted uses, not prohibited ones. Additionally, advertising on social media or online brokers could not be prohibited since licensed bed and breakfasts also advertised on sites such as Airbnb.

This is a well-worn topic for the board, and most recently came up last August when it came to the board’s attention that a property on Washington Street was being advertised as available for rental on Airbnb. Before that, in February 2017, a business owner suggested opening an upstairs “lodging house” in the downtown historic district.

In early 2015, the city shut down an unlicensed short-term vacation rental home near downtown and in 2016 a Weston resident unsuccessfully sought the legalization of short-term rental properties.

Webb has told the board that prosecution of such situations can be tricky, and only one incident has ended with successful prosecution.

As city attorney, the burden of proof lies with him, Webb has said, and records from the Airbnb website itself don’t furnish enough evidence for a conviction. Witnesses in such cases are themselves often out-of-state guests and may not cooperate. While the rental is an unlicensed business operating in violation of ordinance, it is not a criminal violation, Webb said. As such, enforcement options are limited.

Elsea also spoke about his efforts, along with alderman Joyce Priddy, to nail down decades-old voluntary annexation talks.

“This annexation talk has been going on for 20 years,” Elsea said, stating he had been in touch with the owner of McCormick Distillery about whether or not the distillery would finally commit to annexation. “The distillery does want to annex in to get on the city’s sewer line.”

Since annexation can only occur along properties contiguous to the existing city limits, the annexation of the distillery, located on Highway JJ, could include a couple dozen parcels of property between the two. Elsea said the bulk of property owners in this area are supportive of voluntary annexation, which leaves the city to calculate the costs involved with annexing the properties. Then, the city can work to budget the annexation and move forward with the process.

The bulk of Weston Bend State Park also lies within the city limits of Weston, which could open the doors for additional voluntary annexations made at the same time, Elsea said.

Also at the meeting, the board addressed a Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) inspection that had uncovered deficiencies in the water system, including mold and rust on the water tower. Director of public works Mike Large said the city is working to address the issues, and is soliciting bids to power wash the water tower, as suggested by DNR.