Citing privacy concerns, city to pull down website listing tourist homes

A screenshot taken from Airbnb on Wednesday shows a number of tourist homes in Missoula. (Airbnb.com)

Citing privacy concerns, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday voted to remove the listing of tourist homes from the city’s website, opting instead to make the information available upon request to inquiring neighbors.

The issue continues the city’s efforts to address tourist homes, which were authorized by a new ordinance adopted last year. But encouraging the operators of a tourist home to register their property, and ensuring neighbors are notified of the change, remain outlying issues.

Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares motioned to remove the list of tourist homes, which include Airbnb and VRBO, from the city site. She and supporters, including the Missoula Organization of Realtors, said the published list of tourist homes raises privacy concerns and could violate state law.

City Attorney Jim Nugent agreed.

“There are some potential reasons for concern,” Nugent told the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee. “If we have a list, it’s the dissemination of it that violates state law. If we have a list that someone wants to come and see, they can sit down and copy it. If they call in or email asking about a specific property, that would not violate the dissemination of a list by law.”

Sam Sill, public affairs officer for the Missoula Organization of Realtors, lobbied for the list’s removal from the city website. The city already requires that neighbors be notified by the owner of a tourist home when the property is registered as a vacation rental.

Publishing the list online outweighs the intended benefits, Sill said.

“We believe it creates safety issues for tourist home operators,” Sill said. “These units are typically going to be furnished and occupied from time to time. The list could be used to identify some places that are vulnerable to burglary or other crimes. It’s something we think the city should take down.”

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones agreed that the list may not serve its intended purpose, though she believes neighbors should have recourse of action if there’s an issue at a tourist home.

Some vacation rentals are owned by out-of-state residents who may not have registered the property with the city as a tourist home. As a result, Jones said, neighbors may have no way to contact the owner if there’s a problem.

“If it’s a tourist home and there’s an issue, and they (the owners) never registered and you’re never contacted, it’s either zero or 10,” Jones said. “Either you don’t do anything or you call the police, and people aren’t always comfortable calling the police. Neighbors need to have some recourse in this situation.”

While the city made no changes to the language in the ordinance, it did agree to remove the list of tourist homes from the website and pass on any information to neighbors who ask for it.

An effort to notify neighbors of a newly registered tourist home via certified mail also failed during Wednesday’s hearing. Cares suggested the $75 cost was too much to add to a property owner looking register a tourist home.

Instead, Development Services was asked to mail a regular form letter notifying neighbors of the change. The letter, sent to property owners two houses in each direction, would provide the contact information of the tourist home’s owner.

“We could send out letters that are not registered,” said Mike Haynes, director of Development Services. “It’s relatively easy and inexpensive, but there’s no guarantee (the neighbors will receive it) in that case.”