County proposes free pass for vacation rentals

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Sun, Apr 26, 2015, 2:05 pm  //  Guest writer

Airbnb screenshot of current rentals near Lake Whatcom.

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.

Related Links:

-> Lodging goals for whatcom county - by Tani
-> Whatcom county and the new sharing economy - by Tani

Walter Haugen  //  Tue, Apr 28, 2015, 10:41 am

When this first came before the Planning Commission last year, it was part of the Planning Department’s overall strategy of “solutions looking for a problem.” The elephant in the room was the rise of Air BnB’s. It appears - on the surface, mind you - that the Planning Department has had to retreat on this one. [You may correct me if I am wrong.] The sprinklers nonsense is just one example of the Planning Department working hard to justify their existence.

Based on my very limited experience, the Planning Department is loath to enforce the regulations they already have - such as restricting sale of used cars at a convenience store on Slater and Elder - in favor of just loading up the books with more regulations.

To my mind, the problem is not people who have high rents or mortgages trying to make ends meet by offering an Air BnB opportunity for tourists to slip high motel/hotel rates, but the alarming rise in bureaucracy that serves no purpose.

[And no, I haven’t joined the Tea Party.]

Tani Sutley  //  Fri, May 01, 2015, 7:47 am

I find it odd that existing laws are not enforced.  You are correct, when Planning and Development finds a law that they are not enforcing, they simply add another law to distract and delay the process.

Whatcom County could enforce vacation rentals right now as a rooming house, which by definition has existed since 1973 for tourist lodging.  After searching Birch Bay occupancy permits from that time period on microfilm, I was not able to find a single conditional use permit was issued. 

Another example, near Glacier, was a rental cabin business that was in resort commercial zoning and by a Growth Management Board mandate was rezoned to R5A.  Not wanting to be non-conforming they asked to be “permitted” as a Rental Cabin Business and were granted conditional use.  In 1998, ordinance 1998-078 was added for Rural zoning and rental cabin(s) were restricted to the Foothills subarea.  No one was ever issued another conditional use rental cabin designation that I could find. 

Perhaps this is what you mean about a solution looking for a problem.  I see it more as a county unwilling to enforce their laws looking for confusion to distract and delay action.

Some people who would have opened a licensed bed and breakfast business instead started unregulated vacation rental property investments because then no county official will ever ask them to comply with any laws.

Walter Haugen  //  Fri, May 01, 2015, 10:24 am

Tami - For the brief number of months I sat on the Planning Commission, I saw several instances of “solutions looking for a problem,” which is why I regard it as an overall strategy on the part of the Planning Department. The role of bureaucrats in feathering their own nests is well known and documented in the social sciences. In that respect, the County Planning Department is part of the norm BUT it’s that “norm” that is killing us and despoiling our world, isn’t it? After all, if there weren’t legions of bureaucrats sitting behind their desks, the wars and corruption would stall out in a day.

Scott Wicklund  //  Sat, May 02, 2015, 8:09 am

There is an additional feature which should be discussed on this topic.  The TPP and other trade agreements all include arbitration boards to provide investors the opportunity to recover lost potential profits in the event that cities, counties, and states pass legislation which would impact potential profits.  Failure to regulate or prohibit vacation rentals now may be extremely costly as future governments consider legislation on vacation rentals.  This is not the time for our leaders to keep their heads in the sand….

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