Third try at crafting Special Event facility rules January 22

The Planning Commission will hold a work session at its next meeting to try to come up with clear and fair rules that protect neighborhoods from the adverse impacts of big, noisy, crowded special events. Agenda materials HERE. The meeting begins at 6:30 at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads.

Planning staff has been focusing on making the existing rules clear and easier to work with. There was never any intention in bringing up this issue to substantially change the rules in place.

Commission members are focusing on how to delineate to whom (or what situations) the rules should apply  and not apply. Now that people better understand the rules in place, they don’t like them. So the discussion continues. Here’s some background from previous posts: Sept 10  Sept 24

Two seats on Commission to be appointed January 27;
Deadline to apply Jan. 20

I wasn’t the only one not paying attention to the deadline for applications for the two seats up for appointment to the County Planning Commission. Only three people applied by the January 6 deadline, so the Council extended the application period to January 20, 10 am. HERE’S HOW TO APPLY.

Both seats are for the 1st District. The district boundaries are the same as the County Council. Here’s a map. If you are near the boundary, look yourself up HERE. OK – no excuses for not applying.

Those who read my posts on Planning Commission business regularly should have a good idea of the subject matter we deal with. However, the next two years in particular will be focused almost exclusively on the update to the County Comprehensive Plan. We won’t be dealing with smaller code revisions and zoning change applications. I’d be happy to talk to anyone who is thinking about applying.

Vacation Rental Regulation Rebuffed

After a full evening of testimony from mostly owners/operators of vacation rentals, the Commission voted 8-1 to recommend to the County Council a simple code change defining specifically that vacation rental units are permitted uses in residential zones. They are already allowed in the code, but not identified by name.

I voted with the majority. Here’s why: Only one of the many owners who spoke even mentioned the proposed regulations and the one that did said they would inflict “profound harm” to his business. Upon questioning, it was only one provision of the proposed rules that was a problem for him — the limit of one unit per lot — and it is not clear to me if what he is doing is legal anyway. But I’ll leave that alone. The owners really didn’t make the case that the really basic and reasonable proposed rules would be a burden on them. They mostly talked about how nice it was to have guests from different places, and how nice and responsible they were as owners. And also how much money their business brings to the county. None of which is relevant, in my opinion.

However, there also needed to be a case made for the regulations in the first place. None was made. The owner of the vacation rental that has been the target of the complaints to the County Council that kicked off this whole thing was in attendance. The commissioners questioned him on the complaints lodged by his neighbors. The tipping point for me was learning that the Sheriff had never made a call on him responding to a complaint. In other words, the neighbors didn’t use the rules we already have about noise, etc, to try to get their concerns addressed. Read my discussion of current enforcement options HERE. If real problems do arise in the future surrounding vacation rentals, we can always revisit this issue then.

Hearing on regulation of vacation rentals January 8th

At our only Planning Commission meeting in December, we previewed proposed new zoning rules for properties rented out as short-term vacation rentals. On January 8th, we will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules, starting at 6:30 pm at the County Annex, NW & Smith Roads. I would suspect that it will be standing room only in our little meeting room, so if you want a seat and plan to speak, come early. It’s clear there is a lot of interest in this topic, so I’ll take a bit more time to lay out the choices and concerns.

THE PROBLEM: With the advent of internet listing sites such as AirBnB and VRBO, renting out your home, or a second home, as a vacation rental is easier than ever. Rural neighborhoods that used to be quiet most of the year now have people in those vacation homes much of the summer and beyond. Neighbors are now complaining about the additional noise and traffic.

CURRENT ZONING RULES: Any residence permitted in the zoning code may be rented to another party, regardless of duration. So currently there are no restrictions on where, as in what zone, a vacation rental may be, as long as it is a permitted residence. The zoning code defines and restricts bed & breakfasts, rooming houses, hotels, and motels, mainly to commercial and high density residential areas, except for B&Bs that can be most places with a permit. The Rooming House definition could be interpreted to include vacation rentals, if we were interested in banning them from rural neighborhoods, but I don’t think that’s what anyone is suggesting and not without a huge fight.

CURRENT ENFORCEMENT OPTIONS: If the main problem is noise impacting the neighborhood, the neighbors can call the sheriff who can cite either the renters or the property owner under the “disorderly house” provisions (WCC 9.40). If the property is being rented out as an event venue, such as a wedding, then the Special Event Venue rules come into play, which requires a permit and are currently very restrictive. Complaints for building and zoning violations can also be filed with county code enforcement.

THE PROPOSAL: The proposed amendment is fairly simple. It would explicitly permit vacation rentals in the same residential zones as B&Bs, requiring an Assessory Use Permit, which is approved by planning staff and is the same type of permit needed for any home business enterprise on residentially-zoned property. Proposed operating rules for vacation rentals include: one unit per lot; if an ADU on site, the owner must also reside in it on the house; no more than 2 people per legal bedroom; no outdoor signage; don’t become a nuisance to your neighbors; one extra parking space; post rules of conduct for the renters; pay your taxes and be a legitimate business; have adequate and safe utilities.

IF YOU WANT TO WEIGH IN ON THIS ISSUE: I have at least a couple of criteria I consider when reviewing zoning rules. One is that there has to be a legitimate problem that can be solved best by zoning rules. Another is there has to be a benefit to the property owner who has to comply with the rules, otherwise they will just ignore them and hope they stay under the radar. Sometimes the benefit could just be that they are no longer operating in a legal/zoning gray area, can get a permit to show they have the right to do what they are doing, and ward off complaints. And does the benefit to the property owner and/or the public outweigh the regulatory burden.  Anyone testifying at the hearing would help me out by addressing these two points. Written comments may be emailed to PDS_Planning_Commission@co.whatcom.wa.us

A COUPLE OTHER QUESTIONS:
To vacation rental owners: Specifically how would these proposed rules impact you?
To neighbors: If the 5-bedroom vacation rental home on the lake next door to you were occupied instead year-round by a 7 member family, including teenagers, 4 cars, lots of friends, jet skis and trampolines, would they have a greater or less impact on the neighborhood than a vacation rental?

Looking beyond this immediate proposal, people interested in ensuring adequate and affordable housing for residents of Whatcom County might want to pay attention to the long-term impacts of housing being “converted” to vacation rentals. Whatcom County has some very desirable vacation areas, and homeowners as well as business people may find it profitable to buy properties specifically as vacation rentals. This will reduce the housing stock available for people who live here, and increase the cost of what’s available. We are already struggling with this issue. It will only get worse.
Next County Council meeting January 13
FULL County Council AGENDA
Planning Commission AGENDA
Planning Commission Meeting Schedule