Contributed photo/Elena Porten
                                Panelists at the town hall discuss affordable housing in San Juan County.

Contributed photo/Elena Porten Panelists at the town hall discuss affordable housing in San Juan County.

Development restrictions discussed at town hall on San Juan County affordable housing

Three isn’t a crowd for Friday Harbor High School graduate Libby Concord and her husband; it’s the way they bought a house.

For the couple in their early 30s, buying a house in their hometown wasn’t an option on their own, so they pooled resources with a longtime friend to buy a four-bedroom home in Friday Harbor.

“We both grew up here,” said Concord about her and her husband, “and we love living here.”

Concord said she and her husband had a $150,000 budget, but could only find local houses in the $200,000 to $300,000 range during their 2015 search. Now the couple shares a mortgage with their friend and rents two bedrooms for extra cash.

Concord was one of a roughly dozen attendees who shared their experiences on locating local affordable housing at a town hall meeting on Friday, March 9 at the county’s fairgrounds building on San Juan Island.

The San Juan Islands Women’s Group organized the town hall, as part of the county’s ongoing discussion on solutions for a problem, that has been heard from islanders’ conversations to government reports: there is a shortage of affordable, long-term housing in San Juan County.

The two-hour town hall meeting included representatives from the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, the town and county governments and local nonprofits that provide affordable housing.

County residents are feeling the housing pinch, explained San Juan County Community Development Director Erika Shook, because outside influences are affecting the local market. Islanders aren’t just competing for homes against each other, but everyone else in the country who wants to live on an archipelago with some of the nation’s most coveted real estate.

“We live in a beautiful place, where everyone wants a second home,” she said.

According to a county report published last March, 36 percent of the county’s housing stock is comprised of homes that are not lived in full-time. Of the 3,561 new housing units created between 2000 and 2010, 56 percent were occupied only seasonally, based on the county’s latest data.

However, several attendees’ solutions to fix the discrepancies created by vacation homes fell flat at the forum.

Charging an additional tax to owners of second county homes would require a new state law before local implementation, said County Council Chairman Bill Watson. Capping the number of second homes in the county has been ruled unconstitutional by courts in other jurisdictions, noted Shook.

Then, how about changing the county’s rules on detached guesthouses? Several members of the roughly 100-person crowd applauded when panelist and Town of Friday Harbor Mayor Farhad Ghatan made this suggestion.

The number of county permits granted for detached guesthouses is annually limited in areas with lower density, like outside the Town of Friday Harbor on San Juan or Eastsound on Orcas. Any guesthouse, in any part of the county, must also be located within 100 feet of a property’s main building. The county refers to these structures as Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs.

Relaxing development regulations on ADUs, said Ghatan, would allow more rental structures to be built, partly, by creating more space between renters and landlords. County staff could also add a rule to limit how close a second structure could be built by property lines, as to not crowd neighbors, he added.

If developers adhere to Friday Harbor’s historic preservation rules, Ghatan explained, town staff offer incentives, like reducing the required number parking spaces and extending building height restrictions. He also told the Journal that the town council will soon discuss whether to allow extra density in the town if developers create affordable housing, based on the staff’s definition of affordable.

The development rules in the county code, which do not apply to the town, are a result of a litigation after the last update on the county’s comprehensive plan. This state-regulated plan outlines how county staff will manage local development, such as the infrastructure and housing needed for a growing population, over the next 20 years.

After the plan’s last update about a decade ago, the state council that oversees comprehensive plans ruled that the county’s code created sprawl and violated their own density regulations. If detached ADUs were built on every parcel in low-density areas, the number of structures would exceed the county’s allowable buildout. An annual lottery to apply for a detached ADU permit was implemented to ensure overdevelopment couldn’t occur.

Yesterday’s battle over curbing density has parlayed into today’s discussions on increasing it to allow more housing options. One attendee at the March 9 forum suggested that county staff increase the number of structures allowed to be built in rural areas.

The current comprehensive plan update, said Shook, will review local density limits, as well as changes proposed by county residents. The key to policy, she said, is balance.

“We don’t want to have the type of development that ruins the [local] character, and, at the same time, you don’t want to have your land uses be so restrictive that folks can’t afford to live here or developers can’t build houses that are affordable,” said Shook.

The county comprehensive plan update is slated to be finished in 2018. To comment on the update, email

REET to fund affordable housing?

WHAT is the possible tax? A 0.5 percent real estate excise tax on all San Juan County real estate transactions.

WHY implement the tax? Revenue from the tax would fund projects to create local, long-term affordable housing.

WHO will the tax help? Specifically, the state code mandates the tax revenue to serve “very low-, low- and moderate-income persons and those with special needs.”

HOW will the tax be legalized? If the measure goes to the November 2018 ballot, county voters will decide if the measure passes.

WHEN will the tax go into effect? If the measure passes, the collection would start 30 days after the election is certified.

Rental Assistance

The following is data on rental assistance awarded through the SJI Family Resource Center.

2016 151 individuals, which includes 43 households.

2017 144 individuals in the first half, including 10 households when long-term rentals were converted to vacation.

2018 11 households in January and February, including three households when long-term rentals were converted to vacation.


Staff image/Hayley Day
                                This pie graph illustrates the breakdown of the housing stock in San Juan County, based on a report by the county’s community development department.

Staff image/Hayley Day This pie graph illustrates the breakdown of the housing stock in San Juan County, based on a report by the county’s community development department.