Short-term rentals not allowed in R-1 residential district in Wisconsin county

by Andrea Vaage

Vilas County v. Accola
Wisconsin Court of Appeals, May 12, 2015

The Accolas own a home on Rosalind Lake in Vilas County, Wisconsin, which is not their primary residence. The property is zoned R-1 Residential, which allows the following permitted uses:

  • Single-family detached dwelling units, including individual mobile homes, which meet the yard requirements of the district.
  • One non-rental guesthouse, which may be occupied on a temporary basis.
  • Parks, playgrounds, golf courses and other recreation facilities.
  • Home occupations.
  • Essential services.
  • Hobby farms.

The Vilas County zoning ordinance also includes an R/L Residential Lodging district. The purpose of the Residential/Lodging District, as stated in the ordinance, is to “provide for areas with primarily low-density residential use, but with some mixing of low-density Transient Lodging.” Transient Lodging is defined as “a commercial lodging establishment, which allows rental of sleeping quarters or dwelling units for periods of less than one month.” The R/L District lists the following permitted uses:

  • All uses permitted in the R-1 District.
  • Bed and breakfast establishments.
  • Resort establishments with no contiguous multiple-family dwelling units.
  • Rental of residential dwelling unit.

Shortly after purchasing the property the Accolas began advertising the property for rent on the internet for stays as short as two days. The County advised the couple that single-family residences in the R-1 district could not be rented for less than one month. In response, the Accolas established a corporation called Better Way to Live. The couple had people staying at the property “donate” to the corporation for cleaning, utility, and other expenses, and allegedly gave the remainder of the donation to charity. The County determined that donating posed no functional difference from renting the property. The circuit court enjoined the Accolas from renting the Rosalind Lake property for durations of less than thirty days, and the Accolas appealed.

The property is located in the R-1 residential district, which allows single family detached dwelling units, but makes no mention of whether renting the unit is allowed. The County asserted that rentals under one month were prohibited in the R-1 district because they are specifically permitted in the R/L district. Thus, if short-term rental was allowed in the R-1 district, then the additional language in the RL district ordinance would be meaningless.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the County.  When the R-1 district regulations are read in context with the R/L regulations, the only reasonable conclusion is that the phrase “rental of residential dwelling unit” in R/L refers to rentals of residential dwelling units for periods of less than one month.  The zoning ordinance unambiguously permits in the R/L district both: (1) the rental of single-family detached dwelling units for periods of less than one month; and (2) all uses permitted in the R-1 district, which includes single-family detached dwelling units. “If the Accolas were correct that the rental of single-family detached dwelling units for periods of less than one month was a permitted use in the R-1 district, then the section of the R/L district regulations permitting the rental of single-family detached dwelling units for periods of less than one month would be superfluous because all uses permitted in the R-1 district are already permitted in the RL district.”

The Court affirmed decision granting summary judgement to the County.

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