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Tani Sutley guest writes her third article about the lack of county regulations for residental homes being converted to vacation rentals.
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The Whatcom County Council will introduce an amendment to add vacation rentals to Title 20 zoning at the council’s evening meeting on Tuesday, April 28. The agenda is here and the pdf of the document item is AB2015-072A.
Whatcom County Senior Planner Gary Davis will present an outline of the amendment which would add vacation rentals as an “accessory use” in every residential neighborhood. No permit or inspection would be required and it has not yet been decided if operators of vacation rentals will be subject to performance standards. However, if no permit is required, all standards will be voluntary compliance only.
According to a letter from Royce Buckingham, attorney for Planning and Development Services, the county planning department first proposed that the Title 20 rooming house definition be “updated to recognize that short-term transient rentals smaller than six sleeping units may be regulated in some manner in appropriate zones. The manner/method of regulation is to be determined by the legislature.”
More recently, the county determined to no longer distinguish between long-term and short-term rentals of residences, that rentals of any duration, including vacation rentals, are permitted in rural and residential zones. They have not issued any recommendations on building code standards for vacation rentals.
County senior planner Gary Davis writes in a letter to the council: “A Whatcom County Building Services Code Interpretation (PL573-001C) requires additional safety features for bed and breakfast businesses – including automatic sprinklers for B&B’s with three to five guestrooms. The International Building Code does not address vacation rentals or B&B’s specifically, but states “Where a structure is proposed for a purpose that is not specifically provided for in this code, such structure shall be classified in the group that the occupancy most nearly resembles, according to the fire and safety and relative hazard involved.” Whatcom County’s Building Official will need to determine how to apply the building code to vacation rental units.”
County planners discuss in the AB2015-072A proposal that the City of Bellingham zoning codes do not “...address vacation rentals but their staff and Hearing Examiner interpret the code as prohibiting transient accommodations in residential zones – except bed and breakfast facilities, which are allowed through a conditional use permit.”
Reviewing this proposal, it appears to merge commercial uses of property with residential uses. It would give the business community access to residential properties in a new way and allow investors to legally convert properties to commercial-use-only with no permits. There is no mention of the home being owner occupied.
Our County Council members are being asked to decide if this new use of homes for tourist lodging serves the needs of our community. If it is regulated to be a very minor use of the property that otherwise is used by the owner as a residence it could have a small impact on residential neighborhoods. If “accessory use” is to left undefined and no permit is required then it is left to the imagination of the property owner to decide how to use the home.
The April 28th meeting will introduce the ordinance for discussion at a future date. It will be the Council’s turn to decide to advance the Planning Commission’s proposal for unregulated vacation rentals in every zoning district where residential housing exists or to advance the Council’s proposal with the same provisions but with some limited standards.