The pace of island life ebbs and flows slowly, like soft rolling waves on the beach. Wildlife is right outside the door and stars still shine bright in the night sky. All these qualities attract visitors, who both support the local economy and strain the environment.
“Tourism is like fire. If harnessed, it cooks your food. Out of control, it can burn your house down,” Barbara Marrett, communication and stewardship manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, told the audience during a League of Women Voters discussion titled “Sharing Paradise,” on Nov. 18.
Marrett and Orcas islander Joe Symons, spoke about the county’s tourism and small-town community dynamic hoping to spark a conversation about issues that dichotomy creates. Symons began the discussion by urging people to become involved in shaping their community’s future.
“We have to share this space, but how do we share it while still being sustainable,” Symons asked.
Symons is has studied and written about the impact of tourists on coastal towns and is a member of a group of citizens called the Orcas Island Vacation Rental Workgroup, which is comprised of Orcas citizens concerned about the impacts of vacation rentals. The group held at least three community meetings to brainstorm solutions. Vacation rentals are houses rented out for only a few nights to weeks at a time as opposed to long-term rentals lasting months to years.
According to public data, there are currently 1,115 vacation rental permits in San Juan County; more than 500 of them are located on Orcas. There is currently no limit to how many permits may be issued and when the property sells, the permit remains.
The accrual of vacation rentals comes with a cost, according to Symons, including impacts on aquifers.
Symons explained he became aware of the problem while serving on the Doe Bay Water Users Association board several years ago. During that time, he and his fellow board members worked to upgrade the association’s equipment by installing water meters at each house. The goal was simply to be more efficient overall, but the group discovered part-timers, who only spent two-four weeks in the summer at their Doe Bay home, used nearly as much water during that short time that a full-time residence did in a year.
During the workgroup’s September meeting, data was presented showing that rental homes used 45 percent more water than residents last year, Symons explained. During July and August, the rentals used 89 percent more water than the average home, he added. Should the trend of water usage continue with vacation rental numbers simultaneously increasing, could cause neighboring wells to run dry, he noted. Marrett agreed that water is a critical issue in the county, and noted that the visitor’s bureau works to educate guests about how to conserve water.
Symons also said that when a neighborhood turns into a line of vacation rentals, the community feeling is significantly altered.
Audience member Carol Lee Maya said that her neighborhood has several vacation rentals and it has shifted from the neighborly attitude it once had.
“People just come and go now,” Maya said. “We don’t know anyone anymore.”
Members of the workgroup and other citizens presented the San Juan County Council with a petition to put a moratorium on vacation rentals on Nov. 5. The council declined to act on the petition, noting that it completed an 18-month-long inquiry into vacation rentals and adopted the regulations update in March 2018.
“There are plenty of other alternatives we haven’t even discussed yet,” Symons said, mentioning limiting the number of rentals and or regulating them similarly to Accessory Dwelling Units.
Marrett added that many local homeowners’ associations do not allow vacation rentals, and that option may be a viable avenue for some neighborhoods.
Symons noted other general issues as well, including the inability for islanders to make ferry reservations during the summer; lack of parking; traffic congestion; and crowded parks.
Symons also discussed population density in the county and the possibility of purchasing and retiring development rights on some pieces of land. According to Symons, studies have shown that for every $1 a county makes in tax revenue from new development, the county pays $1.35 on infrastructure.
“Either we pay for what we want or we pay for what we don’t want. It’s your choice,” Symons told the audience.
Marrett noted that for a time, Washington state was one of the few states that did not have a budget for tourism. The result was no one came to Washington, she said. Marrett moved to the islands in the ‘70s. With a small population, there was little in the way of museums or theater. While there are some aspects of that era she misses, “I enjoy the cultural vibrancy,” Marrett said.
“Sidewalks, public restrooms, parking lots all comes from tourist dollars,” Marrett explained.
The visitor’s bureau, she continued, has tried to focus on attracting certain types of people — ones that are respectful. The bureau supports Leave No Trace — a set of outdoor ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors — and it educates possible visitors about the local environment.
The visitor’s bureau has an online pledge for vacationers. Should they choose to sign off on it, the pledge promotes volunteering — like taking part in the Great Island Clean-Up — best practices and stewardship, like following Leave No Trace ethics, and not feeding wildlife.
“We need to start acknowledging we need to do something,” Marrett said, adding that the bureau does support a Tourism Master Plan. An ideal master plan would address residents quality of life, the environment, the quality of the economy, she continued, as well as the visitors experience.
Marrett also noted that according to a study by Dean Runyan Associates, 46.5 percent of visitors that spend at least one night are houseguests of islanders. These guests also have an environmental impact — using water, sewage, roads and ferries. Their economic impact, according to the study, is less.
“They are not paying for lodging, and are eating-in with their friends rather than dining out, for example,” Marrett said.
That doesn’t mean Marrett and the visitor’s bureau think people shouldn’t have guests, she noted, but that community members could also use the opportunity to educate their visiting friends about the local environment.
“I’m not a fan of regulation, but I’m also not a fan of chaos,” Symons said. “Let’s get real, roll up our sleeves and have an honest conversation.”