State College

Owners appeal ‘tourist houses’: Duo fight State College ordinance that bans short-term rentals

The home at 612 Walnut St. has a legal notice sign in the yard. The State College Zoning Hearing Board is having a hearing regarding two homes in downtown State College being used as “tourist homes” in a zoned residential neighborhood, July 8, 2014.
The home at 612 Walnut St. has a legal notice sign in the yard. The State College Zoning Hearing Board is having a hearing regarding two homes in downtown State College being used as “tourist homes” in a zoned residential neighborhood, July 8, 2014. CDT photo

What use of a property constitutes a “tourist house” was in question during a State College zoning board hearing Tuesday.

Patton Township residents Craig and Susan Stout are contesting an enforcement notice of zoning issued by zoning officer John Wilson.

The Stouts own two properties in the borough, 138 W. Prospect Ave. and the adjacent 612 Walnut St., both of which are approved as rental properties.

According to testimony by Wilson, during the course of an investigation into short-term rentals in 2013, the Stouts’ properties were identified as tourist houses.

A tourist house is defined as a house in which rooms are rented to transient guests.

Wilson said had spoken with the Stouts, telling them he would take more time to do thorough research. He contacted them in April to inform them that the properties were in violation of the zoning ordinance and that action would be taken by July if the violation continued.

Wilson cited evidence such as advertisements in the Centre Daily Times and online that “clearly advertised the houses for special events in the community for short periods of time.” The Prospect Avenue address was advertised as able to accommodate 10 guests in four bedrooms, and the Walnut Street house could accommodate eight in three bedrooms.

Wilson said he defined a transient guest as someone who stayed on the property for less than seven days. No official definition exists in the books, he said.

Borough planning and zoning officer Anne Messner testified that she had contact with the Stouts when they purchased the Prospect property in 2010. The Stouts were having no success in selling the property, she said, and wanted to see if they could rent the property, specifically for football weekends.

Borough Council completed documents regarding football rentals around the same time the Stouts contacted Messner, she said. “It was a very new document for the staff,” she said. She also said she had not advised the Stouts on the position the council had taken on football rentals.

Craig Stout testified that he and his wife’s initial intention was to renovate the house “to improve the neighborhood,” then resell it. Their initial intention was to keep the house on the market while renting it during football season.

But their efforts to sell the house were unsuccessful.

After their discussion with Messner, he said, they thought they had the green light to rent it. While the property was left on the market, the Stouts noticed a demand for less-than-nine-month rentals. At no point, he said, were they informed they couldn’t rent for a set number of days.

Stout said the properties are rented on a short- or long-term basis. During the football season, he said, it’s short. During summer, it’s long. Based on figures he provided, individuals who stay less than seven nights only comprise 33 percent of the tenants at the Prospect property and 22 percent of the renters at the Walnut property.

Neither property is on the market.

Borough solicitor Terry Williams explained in his summary statement that the definitions are in the ordinance. The properties are advertised as short-term rentals, he said, and fit the definition of a tourist house. Tourist houses are not permitted in the R2 zoning where the properties are located, therefore, the enforcement of the ordinance is entirely proper, he said.

The Stouts’ attorney, James F.P. Welch, of McNees, Wallace and Nurick, argued that, as the term is defined in the ordinance, the use of the property does not constitute a tourist house. A tourist house must involve sleeping provisions to transient guests as a generally continuous practice, he said; however, “generally continuous” is not defined in the ordinance. If these short-term rentals are interrupted with longer-term rentals, “generally continuous” does not apply.

Even if the board disagrees with with the definition of tourist house, he said, an ambiguous term such as “transient guests” needs to be defined narrowly and in the favor of the owner, according to state law.

No period of time is specifically defined in the term. A measurable time period needs to be defined in determining an individual a “transient guest,” Welch said.

Zoning Hearing Board Chairman Stanford Lembeck said solicitor Jeff Stover, who attended the hearing, will develop the findings of fact in the hearing and a conclusion of law for the board to review at the next hearing on July 22, when a decision is expected.