Vacation rental hosts ask county to review possible regulation

By Ian Haupt

About 10 Whatcom County residents voiced their concerns on proposed amendments to Title 20 zoning to regulate short-term vacation rentals (STRs) in a Whatcom County Council advisory public hearing May 10. The hearing was intended to gauge public interest on whether such proposed amendments are needed and supported by the public. Council made no action on the ordinance.

Most speakers either asked council to reconsider imposing regulations or to send the amendments back to the planning commission for further review. Many identified themselves as STR hosts and some called the regulations a “slippery slope.” They also said regulation could hinder the county’s tourism industry and public access.

Council first took up the issue of STRs in 2014 after receiving complaints from neighbors abutting STRs. Under Whatcom County Code, vacation rentals are allowed wherever single-family dwellings are permitted. Council has discussed the issue in committees a dozen times so far beginning September 16, 2014 through March 8, 2022.

Since initial discussions, Washington state Legislature has implemented its own set of regulations revolving around taxes, consumer safety, platforms and liability insurance.

Three speakers supported the regulations in their current state.

Birch Bay resident and The C Shop co-owner Pat Alesse said some STR owners fail to pay taxes on their units and that regulations could help enforcement. He also said he had horror stories of STRs if councilmembers wished to hear them off record.

A Glacier resident said the area has had an influx of STRs since the pandemic and regulations would help sustain the local environment and economy, as rising prices have pushed out the local labor force.

Birch Bay resident and host Kelvin Barton said the rules on vacation rentals have changed a lot over the years and recommended council have the planning commission review the amendments. He said he had issues that an early version of the county’s amendments had stricter rules for operators with fewer than six units and that an operator under the current amendments could be shutdown if they have two violations. Barton said he supports requiring a posted license number outside of the unit.

Whatcom County Association of REALTORS government affairs director Perry Eskridge said how many STR hosts rent out units so that they can afford the home.

“We’re not against the regulations, we’re not exactly for the regulations,” Eskridge said. “But we think that there’s probably a way to craft a reasonable, responsible response to some of the issues that have been raised.”

After the hearing, councilmembers Ben Elenbaas and Kathy Kershner expressed their opinions during council discussion.

Elenbaas, who does not support the amendments, said he knows a couple of people who run STRs and that they all host so they can afford their house. He said he wouldn’t want to take that ability away.

Kershner said planning commission should review the amendments. She listed a number of concerns: Lack of data on STR complaints, planning and development services department managing the program, rental frequency to qualify for the program, septic inspection duplication for conditional use permits for Lake Whatcom properties and others.

Council chair Todd Donovan said he expects council to discuss the amendments further in either the council’s planning and development committee or committee of the whole. No other council members spoke during the discussion.

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