Some tourist homes illegal

For travelers seeking a homey place to stay during their visit to Missoula, sites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and FlipKey offer vacation rentals at prices comparable to hotels. But as some rental owners have learned, city laws haven't yet caught up with the relatively new services.

Since 2007, Lane Coulston has rented out a furnished, one-bedroom bungalow in the Rattlesnake, with amenities including a shady backyard patio and fully furnished kitchen. Coulston says he's taken pains to get a business license and pay state lodging taxes. But last fall, when a neighbor complained to the city, Coulston found out the rental was illegal since Missoula city code only permits vacation rentals of less than 30 days in commercial zoning districts.

He still doesn't know which neighbor complained.

"Somebody gets a hair, you know, and they decide to punk somebody, and it's within their rights to do that," Coulston says.

Ward 4 City Councilman John DiBari says he learned about the problem when Coulston reached out to him for advice.

"For instance, the Wilma has these things in it, and it's totally legal because it's in the central business district, it's allowed in that zone," DiBari says. "However, we don't know how many hundreds around the city of Missoula are in residential districts, and those are technically illegal."

DiBari says vacation rentals by owner are called "tourist homes" in state law. The classification dates back to the days of the Great Depression, when unemployed travelers passing through town would stay in a spare bedroom or pitch a tent in someone's backyard rather than pay for a hotel. DiBari is drafting an ordinance to reflect the modern-day use of tourist homes, though he hasn't ironed out all the details yet.

A recent search on Airbnb shows 238 rentals in Missoula. City staff are researching to see how many might be illegal.

As for Coulston's Rattlesnake bungalow, he says until the law changes, he's only allowed by zoning to rent out the space for 30 days or longer. But it's tough to find people who want to stay for that length of time.

"We're under a real economic duress here, and we have a real interest in working this out," Coulston says.

DiBari hopes to bring the discussion about tourist homes before the Land Use and Planning Committee as soon as May 11.

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