Moratorium on new vacation rental permits continues

The moratorium on new vacation rental permits in San Juan County continues. On July 12, the San Juan County Council unanimously agreed to continue the ban until Jan. 13, 2022.

More than 40 residents of the San Juan Islands — some vacation rental owners, others not — made comments regarding the moratorium and a proposed cap on the number of permits.

“I am urging you to support the moratorium. … We do have a housing crisis here and I beg to differ that vacation rentals, that option, doesn’t impact it,” Lopez resident Kai Sanburn said. “We do not have a crisis of visitors coming to the island, we have a crisis for people who live here, who try to work here. We have a crisis of businesses that are unable to find employees because they have no place to live.”

​​As of July 16, there are a total of 14,119 housing units in San Juan County and 1,002 of those have vacation rental permits.

In a presentation to the Planning Commission on July 16, San Juan County Department of Community Development Director Erika Shook presented options for vacation rental permit caps.

DCD staff suggested a countywide cap limiting the number of issued permits throughout the county to 1,200. San Juan Island would be limited to 520 permits — 9% of projected future housing units. Orcas would be limited to 500 — approximately how many exist now. Both San Juan and Orcas’ caps would be for houses located outside of the Master Planned Resort designation.

Lopez permits would not exceed 4 % of projected future housing units — a total of 174. Vacation rentals are prohibited on Shaw and Waldron. Finally, the number of vacation rentals on all other islands would be limited to the remaining vacation rentals until the 1,200 cap is reached.

Those speaking in support of the continuation of the moratorium at the county council meeting focused on the history of the permit pause and the future of the islands. Sustainability, overtourism and quality of life were three frequently referenced reasons for wanting to continue the moratorium and allow for the county to research the idea of limiting the number of permits it approves.

Sheila Gaquin, a member of the Planning Commission who lives in Deer Harbor, walked the council through the history of the moratorium in her supporting statement.

“We were concerned with issues such as water usage; vacation rentals and various land-use designations; traffic on private roads; multiple vacation rentals on a single property; the number of overnight guests versus the number of permitted septic systems; how to limit corporate ownership; neighborhood densities; the impact of landlords choosing tourists over tenants; the impact to property value for homes in proximity to vacation rentals; the number of unpermitted vacation rentals still operating; a desire to change permits so they didn’t run with the land; the wisdom of self-certifications for health and safety issues; and the huge issue of enforcement,” Gaquin said. “The public has also been asking for moratoriums.”

Realizing that it is “impossible” to mitigate the aforementioned concerns while continuing to issue permits, the Planning Commission voted unanimously in November 2020 to ask the county council to take action, Gaquin explained. In 2019, the Eastsound Planning Review Committee noted the number of permits issued and how nearly half of them were on Orcas Island.

“They asked the council for a moratorium,” Gaquin said. “And the overwhelming conclusion of three community conversations that took place on Orcas in 2019 was the public’s request for a moratorium.”

The Deer Harbor Planning Review Committee requested a vacation moratorium from the council in 2016, 2018 and 2019, Gaquin said. Local environmental nonprofit Friends of the San Juans was concerned that more than half of the issued permits were to owners who do not reside in the county, she continued.

Orcas Island resident David Turnoy also encouraged the continuation of the moratorium and the introduction of limit caps. He said that he believes investors from outside the county are destroying neighborhoods — particularly those in rural residential land designations. Rural residential was removed from the moratorium in March, along with the entirety of San Juan Island and several land-use designations on Orcas and Lopez. The moratorium was altered to only cover the urban growth areas of Lopez and Orcas as well as the hamlets of Orcas.

Another problem Turnoy, and many commenters, mentioned is the lack of affordable housing for middle-income residents of the islands.

“While VRs are not necessarily a cause of it, they are a factor,” Turnoy said. “Middle-income earners could afford to rent many of these homes. These are the houses that are owned by people or businesses from outside the county as opposed to the rooms or cottages where the homeowner is on the premises. Let’s use these houses to provide more affordable housing.”

Not every commenter was convinced the moratorium and a cap on vacation rentals is the right idea.

“I’m not convinced that limiting rental permits is the solution to the problems we’re trying to solve — like lack of affordable housing, et cetera,” said Jon Richards, a vacation rental owner from San Juan. “One needs to delve deep into the problem to determine the actual cause of the problem.”

San Juan Island resident Tamara Wilson also noted the lack of evidence surrounding the correlation between vacation rentals and affordable housing.

“I don’t think it solves a problem that is brought up again and again and again and that is affordable housing. I wish that building would be easier for people to build affordable housing. My husband and I have built two residences for employee housing that are affordable and quality. They’re not tomorrow’s slums,” Nelson said. “I think it’s a really good thing. I think it’s good for the island. It provides jobs. I hope that you will stop the caps and the moratorium.”