County Council amends vacation rental moratorium to cover only select land use designations on Orcas and Lopez

Recognizing that vacation rentals aren’t as significant of a problem in some places of the islands, the San Juan County Council amended its moratorium to limit its scope. On March 9, the council resumed its public hearing on the vacation rental moratorium that was adopted on Jan. 12.

“That’s something we’re suffering from on Orcas right now, but it’s something that I think you need to consider in terms of the future of the islands you live on,” said Orcas Council Member Cindy Wolf. “I would strongly encourage you, if you wish, to modify this moratorium to think in terms of broader designations, such as rural residential, that will protect the HOAs and your residential neighborhoods on your islands as well as the residential neighborhoods on Orcas.”

The moratorium was altered to cover the urban growth areas of Lopez and Orcas as well as the hamlets of Orcas Island for six months. Additionally, the focus of the moratorium work plan is to pursue a cap on the number of vacation rentals allowed in the island.

As of March 9, there are 1,002 vacation rental permits issued, according to San Juan County Community Development Director Erika Shook. Vacation rentals account for 7 percent of the available housing units in the county and 8 percent of the available housing in unincorporated areas — meaning outside of the Town of Friday Harbor.

Wolf stated that in her studies she has found vacation rentals have an effect on the availability of affordable rentals in a community. Stephens disagreed.

“I don’t see the causality between short-term rentals and housing availability,” Stephens said. “Particularly when a lot of the short-term rentals are on very high-end houses along the water.”

Wolf countered Stephens’ statement regarding the number of short-term rentals being more high-end houses along the water by noting approximately 10 percent of the houses in the residential area of Rosario Highlands on Orcas are permitted vacation rentals.

“And those are relatively modest homes, those are not giant palaces on the water,” Wolf said. “This really is impacting residential communities. I know the people who have had to move off-island because of this. … For me, there is no question in my mind that there is pressure being put on.”

The Rosario Highlands is not covered by the amended moratorium. Wolf voted against the amendments, while Stephens and San Juan Island County Council Member Christine Minney voted for the alteration.

“I do believe it’s very, distinctly apparent that we have a problem. I do believe that it is more distinctly felt and is potentially much more harmful on Orcas Island than it is on San Juan Island,” Minney said. “And as of today, I have had very few conversations with people in my district that support the moratorium or find that they are in a position of being affected — personally or otherwise — by vacation rentals or the vacation rental industry. I actually find the opposite, that they feel they will be significantly and adversely impacted by the vacation rental moratorium.”