Council votes to limit vacation rentals

Editors note: this version has been edited to correct two errors.

The previous version stated council member Cindy Wolf cited rural locations as a reason to limit vacation rentals, but she actually said that the reason to limit them is that are concentrated in Orcas Island’s densest residential neighborhood.

The previous version stated a five-year sunset clause was added, however, San Juan County Community Development director Dave Williams pointed out that the council could revisit the issue at any time, and Wolf objected to mandating what future council must deal with.

After listening to over three hours of public testimony Tuesday, May 17, the San Juan County Council unanimously voted on island-specific caps for vacation rentals. Orcas is capped at 211, San Juan at 337, Lopez at 135 and the outer islands at 10. The new limits will take effect ten days after the ordinance was adopted.

“I heard San Juan Island loud and clear, and I heard Orcas loud and clear,” council member Cindy Wolf said to her colleagues as they deliberated. Commenters from Orcas Island heavily supported a cap, citing safety issues, water concerns and impacts on affordable housing. San Juan Island commenters cited economic reasons to keep vacation rentals as a viable source of income, many stating they did not see the evidence that short-term rentals have a significant impact, particularly on affordable housing.

“The price points do not pencil out,” Aaron Ancich of San Juan Island said, explaining that comparing long-term rentals to short-term is like apples and oranges. People often can not make the money needed to cover mortgages with long-term rentals, and Audrey Dulsen, also of San Juan Island, noted that Washington state does not have much recourse if a landlord ends up with a bad tenant. “I think this will end up hurting more people than it helps,” Dulsen said.

To mitigate safety issues or water concerns others had brought up, those who were against capping rentals suggested these problems could be addressed through Home Owners Associations, or by other local means.

“I use a local property management company to make sure renters understand water usage, road safety, etcetera,” Paula Trust said. Trust currently lives in Edmonds, she said but owns a house on San Juan, where she and her husband lived for several years. So far, she has not had complaints from neighbors and has tried to be respectful of their needs as well.

Not everyone on San Juan Island opposed limiting vacation rentals.

Juniper Maas, owner of Juniper Lane Guest House, a boutique inn, and a cabin, vocalized support for the ordinance.

“There are many nuances and there should be caveats to revisit the issue,” she said. Maas noted that even if 10 homes being converted to short-term rentals means individuals are out of a long-term rental, that is an impact. Having both an Inn and a vacation rental, she said the regulations are far more stringent for the Inn than her cabin. Maas also brought up studies where unlimited tourism has destroyed rural towns. “It makes me sad that something I’ve worked so hard for 20 years for may be part of the problem.”

Orcas Island has the highest number of vacation rentals in the county, with 334 compliant rentals. San Juan currently has 224, Lopez has 85, and there are three compliant rentals on the outer islands.

The high number of VR’s coupled with the fact they are concentrated in Orcas Island’s densest residential neighborhood led Orcas Islanders to petition the council to put limits on them, Wolf said, as she explained the reasoning behind choosing 211, a number far lower than the current number of compliant VRs on Orcas.

“It isn’t all a money grab,” council member Jamie Stephens, Lopez Island said. “People do this for a variety of reasons.” Stephens explained that he wanted space to increase the number, and 135 provided that space. Stephens also said he felt it was important the ordinance be reviewed in five years. San Juan County Community Development director Dave Williams pointed out that the council could revisit the issue at any time, and Wolf objected to mandating what future council must deal with.

“I am overwhelmingly grateful for the input,” Minney said. “I believe I live on an island that does not feel the impacts the way Orcas does. But, there are many who do not want VRs to go unchecked. Therefore I am setting the limit at 337.”

The outer islands were set at 10.

“Stuart has one, and Decatur has two compliant,” Williams said.

After going through the findings and adding a section that removes the moratorium once the caps go into effect, the ordinance was approved.

Planner Sophia Cassam was given kudos once it was complete.

“She has worked tirelessly on this issue,” David Williams, Director of San Juan Community Planning and Development, said.

Minney also thanked Cassam for her work and reflected on the information council members had gained.

“We learned about our communities individually and more holistically,” Minney said.