Lodging Goals for Whatcom County

Tani Sutley guest writes about the vacation rentals situation and presents goals for the county council to consider for improving our rural neighborhoods.

Tani Sutley guest writes about the vacation rentals situation and presents goals for the county council to consider for improving our rural neighborhoods.

Tani Sutley guest writes a second article about unlicensed vacation rentals and presents goals for the county council to consider.

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Whatcom County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing onThursday, January 8, 2015, 6:30 pm at the County NW Annex at the intersection of Northwest Road and Smith Road to discuss a proposed amendment to Whatcom County code to allow Vacation Rentals in all residential zones. Public input is encouraged.

Vacation rentals commonly feature short-duration rental periods with minimum stays of two days and list availability year round. The homes advertised on AirB&B, VRBO.com and similar sites are mostly not owner occupied and are investment properties. Many employ a property management company to clean and manage the maintenance of the unit while the owner lives in Canada or elsewhere.

Pictured with this article is one of the three vacation rental properties in our neighborhood, this one owned by a Canadian couple. The property is rented to transient guests throughout the year although the prime months are June, July, August and September. A hired service comes to handle cleaning, linens, etc. between guests.

Code Amendment PLN2014-00020

Following an initial review by the County Council who informally endorsed it, proposed amendment PLN2014-00020 was reviewed by the Planning Commission on December 11, 2014. It states any owner can rent their home for less than 30 days as a customarily incidental accessory use. In seeking to apply this designation, planning staff are asking us to accept that renting a home to tourists has, by long practice, been established as reasonably associated with the primary residential use.

Most residential neighborhoods in Whatcom County, however, are, by long practice, not used for overnight tourist lodging. By long practice, homeowners live in neighborhoods occupied by other homeowners who are also using their homes for long-term habitation. Since most homeowners need to live in their homes as a residence, an entire home rental to tourists can really only happen if the home is not the primary home of the owner and is purchased as an investment property, is a second seasonal use home or they have a permitted Accessory Dwelling unit.

Transient Occupancy Tax

With areas in Birch Bay and the Mt. Baker Recreational Regions operating in Resort/Recreational developments generating tax income for Whatcom County, county officials are interested in generating more income from vacation rentals in other areas. The Bellingham Herald reported on December 11, 2014:

County officials see an opportunity to make up for potential lost revenue. Vacation rentals, or homes rented to guests for less than 30 days, are unregulated in the county, and many do not pay a lodging tax, according to officials. The council is scheduled to consider new rules for vacation rentals next year.
“One of the conditions of being legal would be to make sure the taxes are paid,” Louws said.
A search on AirBnB.com gave more than 300 results for vacation rentals in Whatcom County. Estimating conservatively that 300 places are rented four weeks a year at $100 a night, the county or cities should collect $33,600 a year in tourism promotion dollars.

One way to generate more tax revenue is to allow all residential homes to be used for transient rentals. This would encourage residential homes to be purchased by investors from Canada or elsewhere to purchase existing homes for tourist rentals. For investors in real estate, the minimally regulated and minimally enforced residential uses eliminates environmental reviews, permit costs, and delays for conditional use permits. For residents of Whatcom County, it would drive up the cost of home ownership or the cost of renting a home while working and living in the area since it impacts the availability of our long-term rental supply.

Regulation of Vacation Rentals in Other Counties and Cities

San Francisco, Portland and Lincoln City, Oregon have all recently updated their laws to deal with web-enabled commercial use of homes as vacation rentals. All three now regulate the level of impact by either allowing accessory use for low impact or requiring conditional use permits for higher impact, higher occupancy uses. Lincoln City, Oregon has designated certain areas for vacation rentals but excludes them entirely in other areas. This separation of uses is also found in Pacific County, Washington state.

Portland, Oregon’s recent update of municipal code for vacation rentals is much like Whatcom County’s bed and breakfast establishment allowance of two rooms to be rented in a home that is still used as the primary residence of the owner. A home used for three to five rooms in Portland requires a conditional use permit. Unlike this proposal, they require a license regardless of the number of bedrooms, neighbors must be notified and they have provisions for enforcement. In our county enforcement is delegated to the sheriff’s office and only noise is considered enforceable. Although building standards are included in the proposal, no inspections or license will be required continuing the present practice of complaint driven compliance.


In Whatcom County, noncompliance with building codes and regulations are assigned a low priority for enforcement and entire home remodels creating new unpermitted accessory apartments for vacation rentals are considered low priority. Assigning low priority assures compliance will never be enforced. On May 6, 2014 the Planning and Development Committee members reviewed issues effecting county code compliance. Minutes are found online on the county website.

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About Tani Sutley

Citizen Journalist • Member since Dec 09, 2014

Comments by Readers

Walter Haugen

Jan 10, 2015

Man, this stuff makes my head hurt! Let me give you an example. Here are six sentence fragments which encapsulate why nothing gets done in a timely manner. [Lines 5 - 24 in the Council minutes.]

[Begin quote]
Mann stated he’s more concerned about enforcement against violations that impact neighbors.

Brenner asked and there was discussion of whether work done by Tyler Schroeder was related to these issues and about beekeeping in the rural residential zone.

Mann stated he would like to fix the code regarding several issues . . . .

Crawford stated there are two issues. One issue is staffing. Another issue is with making the code more efficient and streamlined.

Louws stated they have docketed this year the ability for the County to make changes. Council must encourage staff to go through the process . . . .
[End quote]

So just to recap, Ken Mann says we need more enforcement. Barbara Brenner weighs in with a bit o’ spin. Sam Crawford further dissembles by complicating matters in an attempt to spin it in another direction. Jack Louws pats everyone on the head and says we will get to it.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff could be more aggressive about noise complaints but the inability to get anything done in county government gives him more cover to just ignore the problem.

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