By Martin Kidston

Dozens of so-called tourist homes across Missoula could become legal if the City Council follows through with a proposal to permit vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, so long as they meet certain guidelines.

As it currently stands, tourist homes are permitted only in commercial and business zoning districts in Missoula, though dozens are operating in areas zoned as residential, something the ordinance would permit if the council passes the measure.

“The attempt at putting together the ordinance was to provide a clear and reasonable path to compliance with our zoning ordinance,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari, one of the measure's sponsors.

The proposal, first introduce in May, was sent back to committee on Monday night for additional work, though not without discussion. The evening saw public comment from those who both supported and opposed the measure.

“I haven't seen the significant public outreach you talk about when you plan on changing the zoning in every single residential district across the city,” said Jerry Ballas, a University District resident who raise a number of concerns. “If people market their house for short-term use and find that more attractive than renting it out, that takes affordable housing off the market.”

Jenny Dixon, who operates a tourist home, disagreed and encouraged the council to pass the measure. She believes the issue has received the necessary public outreach.

“You have a lot of responsibility to both your guests and your neighbors, as well as your property,” said Dixon. “The types of people I've hosted include mothers who have come to care for their daughter during cancer treatment, and parents taking their kids to college, or coming to see them graduate.”

Tom Zavitz, with the city's development services, said the ordinance was needed to address emerging trends in the “economy rental market.” He said the practice of renting out dwelling units is proliferating in Missoula, with as many as 230 current listings.

However, half of those listings are for tourist homes, which he said are often confused with room rentals like those advertised on Airbnb.

“A tourist home rental is for the entire dwelling unit, not a single room,” said Zavitz. “This could be done with a house 360 days of the year, or it could be done for one weekend. It's not just a room rental in someone's house.”

Several members of the council said they would not support the measure unless it included a distinction between occasional use and primary use. Some fear that long-term use as a tourist home would take affordable housing off the market for local renters.

“I am not going to support it unless it has the occasional use,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “I thought the idea of people being able to have one or two (tourist homes) was a good idea to stop out-of-state landlords who have 10 or 15 rentals from turning them all into tourist homes.”

Ward 3 council member Marilyn Marler agreed, though DiBari didn't.

“I don't think we need to differentiate between occasional and primary use tourist homes,” DiBari said. “Their suggestion was to have no requirements for occasional use tourist homes. It doesn't make any sense from a city oversight perspective.”

Under the proposed regulations, an appropriate business license would be required to operate a tourist home, and the license must be renewed annually. Liability insurance would also be required, as would a valid lodging tax permit issued by the state.

The new rules would also set standards for signage and the number of tourist homes allowed per parcel. They would limit occupancy at one guest per 100 square feet. While the ordinance would not require off-street parking – a concern to some homeowners – it would prohibit food service.

“The question we're dealing with, should tourist homes be permitted in residential areas?” said Zavitz. “There appears to be many operating in our residential districts. The trend seems to be there are more and more all the time. It's a popular way to stay when you're traveling.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at