Unregulated vacation rentals on Lake Whatcom

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Mon, Dec 21, 2015, 3:14 am  //  Guest writer

Lake Whatcom sunrise by Michael Palmgren.

Tani Sutley guest writes this fourth post on the unregulated vacation rentals on Lake Whatcom.  Her previous articles are linked below this article.

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On December 8th, Whatcom County Council’s Planning and Development committee conducted another meeting with county planners to discuss the regulation of vacation rentals in the county. You can listen to the audio here.  

County planner Gary Davis stated:

“We did some research on what would happen if a vacation rental would come in for registration right now given our Shoreline Management Program.  Right now, given our Shoreline Management Program, if a vacation rental was within the jurisdiction of the Shoreline Management Program, we’ve determined that the way our SMP is written right now a vacation rental would require a shoreline conditional use permit even if it is listed as a permitted use in the zoning code.

We anticipate they would have a difficult time meeting the criteria.”

During the meeting, several council members spoke. Ken Mann stated he is conflicted about vacation rentals since he’s rented his Bellingham home as a vacation rental. Barbara Brenner said she does not want to regulate vacation rentals in the resort areas of Glacier and Birch Bay, but wants the strictest registration and/or enforcement process for all shorelines in the Lake Whatcom Watershed.

Pete Kremen asked whether existing homes along shorelines currently required a conditional use permit or were grandfathered in.  Gary Davis from Planning and Development Services (PDS) thought they were not eligible to be grandfathered.

Rud Browne talked about a vacation rental in Sudden Valley that advertises availability to sleep twenty-five.  Changes to the house were done without permits, including the removal of internal walls to allow more sleeping units, giving the appearance of a bunkhouse.

All attending council members acknowledged the need for a registration process but were reluctant to require an onerous shoreline permit process.  Gary Davis asked if the council would like to amend the Shoreline Management Program permitting process to exclude the current conditional use permit requirement.  All agreed to that suggestion.

Triggers for Permits and Enforcement

So far, the three Planning and Development Committee meetings about vacation rentals have focused on adding the rentals as an allowed use that requires no permit. This is because Whatcom County’s current zoning restricts transient rentals with two ordinances: one is the rooming house code that mentions ‘tourist homes’ and the other is the rental cabin ordinance.  Both of these code sections limit short-term lodging use to higher density and/or higher intensity-of-use locations. Planning and Development Services, however, has dismissed these laws.

PDS instead introduced the notion that vacation rentals were an unlisted use.  Unlisted uses in Whatcom County Title 20 code are, however, prohibited uses.  Now, the challenge for PDS is that they must add the use to the zoning code and define it by designation as allowed or it will remain prohibited. Applying rational thought to this level of denial is difficult for the average citizen so it goes unchallenged and is as yet unresolved.

Further, the Shoreline Management Act requires all non-water oriented uses, such as lodging, to be reviewed by the Department of Ecology before activation of the use.  Ecology allows an exemption from the substantial development permit process for owner-occupied homes, but not for non-owner occupied homes and not for lodging. In other words, vacation rentals along shorelines currently require a permit to conduct business from a residential home. When the Shoreline Management Program requires a conditional use permit for a given jurisdiction, it becomes subject to WCC 23.60.040 - conditional use permit criteria. 

Planning and Development Services, in conjunction with the Department of Ecology, recently reviewed zoning policy and determined vacation rentals are subject to this existing permit. However, they agreed it would be difficult to meet the criteria of shoreline use.

Yet at the most recent committee meeting, Gary Davis of Planning and Development Services stated,  “Right now we don’t have a permit for vacation rentals and there is nothing to trigger it right now.”

When a permit is required by the Title 23 shoreline zoning that is the trigger to correctly inform the public of the permits needed to conduct business in the watershed or other shorelines of the state.  It is also the trigger for enforcement of non-compliance.   In Whatcom County’s Title 20 code any unlisted uses are prohibited. 

This planning process will continue at the end of January.

Related Links:

-> April 2015 - County proposes free pass for vacation rentals
-> Jan 2015 - Lodging goals for Whatcom County
-> Dec 2014 - Whatcom County and the new sharing economy

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