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