Beacon Pointe vacation rental request causes stir

A proposal to turn a condominium at Beacon Pointe's Lighthouse building into a vacation rental property has now twice been tabled by the Duluth City Council. And although the city's planning commission voted 6-1 to recommend approval of a permit ...

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A proposal to turn a condominium at Beacon Pointe's Lighthouse building into a vacation rental property has now twice been tabled by the Duluth City Council. And although the city's planning commission voted 6-1 to recommend approval of a permit that would allow the unit's owner to rent out the property to guests on a short-term basis, residents of the waterfront condo development have continued to argue in vociferous opposition.

Deirdre McCarthy moved into the Beacon Pointe Lighthouse building, 2126 Water St., in September, after waiting about five years for a suitable unit to appear on the market. She passed up a vacancy in the neighboring Beacon Pointe Resort building, opting instead for the relative stability of the Lighthouse, where there would be less churn and she could get to know her neighbors.

Security concerns

McCarthy now worries that if guests are allowed to rent by the week, the nature of the building where she had planned her retirement will undergo a dramatic change, especially if other owners follow suit.

"It's a secure building, and all a sudden we wouldn't have the same security we once had," she said, explaining that once access codes are shared with temporary guests, the entry system will be compromised for all.


But there are precedents. Vacation rental permits already have been issued for units in a couple of other secure buildings - one in Canal Park and another at Boulder Ridge - according to Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services.

Condo owners Laurie Anderson and Randy Holt make their primary home in Maple Grove, and the couple has applied for a vacation rental permit that would allow them to rent out their Beacon Pointe unit to guests.

Holt did not respond to messages the News Tribune left Thursday and Monday.

Although she objects to Holt's proposal to rent out his condo by the week, McCarthy said she doesn't personally fault him.

"I think he was trying to do the right thing by applying for the permit. This is something he thought was allowed, and he was trying to follow the laws of the city of Duluth, so I don't hold anything against Mr. Holt for what he's trying to do. I just don't think this should be allowed in our building," she said.

Not neighbors' call

Although many neighbors have spoken up against allowing vacation rentals in Beacon Pointe's Lighthouse, it may have little bearing on the permit request.

That fact frustrates McCarthy who said: "There were 32 letters written to the planning commission opposing this, from people who just live in houses, townhomes and other condominiums in the area that aren't part of the homeowners association. That's a heck of a lot of letters. Yet the planning board said: 'Well we don't have any legal basis to deny the permit. We're going to recommend it.' That doesn't make any sense to me.


"Why gather public input if you're not going to take that into consideration?" McCarthy asked.

Duluth City Council President Joel Sipress said he understands McCarthy's confusion, but the permit application isn't a popularity contest.

"The reality is that the way our city code is written, the presumption is that if you meet the legal requirements for a vacation rental interim use permit, the city is obliged to give it to you, regardless of the sentiment of your neighbors. We, as a council, can only legally deny an application for a vacation rental unit if in some way the application does not meet the standard under city code," Sipress said.

He explained that the council would need to cite legal faults with the application in order to reject it. Otherwise, the city could be held legally liable.

"If we were not on sound legal ground, we would be depriving somebody of their property rights, because under the law, you have the right to use your property as you see fit, so long as you're using it in a way that's consistent with the law," Sipress said.

At Large City Councilor Noah Hobbs encouraged his colleagues to stand behind the vacation rental ordinance they adopted last year and leave issues of building governance to Beacon Pointe's homeowner association.

"It's an awkward situation where the residents don't really want it, but they have the structure to change it. We did our due diligence as a council with the ordinance that we passed last year," he said.

Repeated delays


Twice now, the Duluth City Council has passed up action on the vacation rental application, opting to leave the matter tabled.

The delays can be attributed in large part to confusion over what the bylaws of the condo's homeowner association state. Some say those rules allow for units to be sublet for no less than one week at a time. But other residents say they were told the minimum term for any sublease was to be no less than one month.

Sipress, who represents Duluth's 2nd District, where Beacon Pointe is located, has supported leaving the request tabled.

"I want to make sure we give them an opportunity to fully air this and allow the residents time to clarify exactly what the bylaws are to consider any changes in their bylaws they may want to make, and just to provide them with time to do that before we make our decision," he said.

But Hobbs has called on fellow councilors to act on the request.

"Are we really looking for more information, or are we waiting for them to change their bylaws and then make the decision? I'm not comfortable with the council playing that role," he said.

If the council fails to act by April 5, the vacation rental permit application will be automatically approved.

Sipress said he considers that a poor option.


"If there still isn't clarity on that point by the time we have to act, then we're going to have to make a decision - yes or no - based on the information we have at that time," he said.

"I'm confident we will act one way or the other, because allowing a permit application to be approved by default, through our inaction, is a very bad practice," Sipress said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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