Public pleads to county council for vacation rental moratorium

Several Orcas islanders hopped on the ferry to give public comment about their concerns with vacation rentals to the San Juan County Council. During the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 20 islanders, hailing from Orcas, San Juan and Shaw, spoke on a proposal to enact a moratorium on vacation rental permits in the county.

“We are experiencing a worldwide phenomenon of overwhelming tourists,” Orcas resident Penny Budke said. “I think we have a real problem and I think you would be really misguided to see this as something that’s good for business. This is not good for business and it’s certainly not good for those of us who are living here.”

Eighteen of the speakers were in support of a moratorium on new permits.

In May, the Eastsound Planning Review Committee voted to request from the San Juan County Council a year-long moratorium on vacation rental permits in Eastsound’s village core. Data from the EPRC showed that more than half of the new structures being built in San Juan County were for second homes or vacation rentals.

When the county council declined to act upon the request, a group of Orcas residents then decided to hold a series of three vacation rental working groups. Councilmember Rick Hughes attended all three meetings.

“We’re very grateful for your participation in the public meetings that we’ve had and we want to see that continue,” Toby Cooper, one of the Vacation Rental Working Group organizers, said. “This vacation rental working group has done a lot of homework for you.”

Another working group member, Jeni Barcelos, presented a petition containing 766 signatures, 29 letters and 50 public comments requesting the council impose an immediate moratorium.

“Short-term vacation rentals have become a problem worldwide,” Orcas resident Janet Alderton said. “Entire countries have adopted restrictions on short-term vacation rentals.”

Proponents of the moratorium cited inadequate septic systems; limited water availability; noise; safety; lack of affordable housing for long term renters; natural environment degradation; rural community destruction and more as reasons to restrict vacation rental permits.

“We know that there’s a place for vacation rentals in the islands, but we need to find what is the balance that allows this whole system to work so that we can benefit in a way that we have a better economy. But there’s also the other side of that coin where it’s too much,” Orcas islander Tiffany Loney said. “We’re losing our culture, we have concerns for the environment, we have concerns for the amount of water that’s being used.”

Deer Harbor Inn owner Craig Carpenter said though his business has survived two major recessions and many other economic ups and downs, the effects of the number of vacation rentals has been the largest challenge he has had to face.

“[The lodging market] is, in my opinion, way oversaturated,” Carpenter said. “Vacation rentals do not have these operating costs that I do so it is very, very difficult to compete with their price structures with the overhead I have to do as a legal entity.”

According to San Juan County public data, there are currently 1,115 vacation rental permits in San Juan County, more than 500 of them on Orcas. There is no data on illegal vacation rental accommodations.

“The growing presence of vacation rentals limits our community’s access to affordable housing; it taxes our critical infrastructures; degrades the natural environment; and threatens the very reasons why many of us choose to live here — why many of us made investment-backed expectations to live in a rural community that wasn’t wasn’t a hotel room next door,” Shaw islander and Friends of the San Juans Executive Director Stephanie Buffum said.

Not every commenter was pro-moratorium, however. One attendee was a San Juan Island resident who said she felt as though the other islands were left out of the discussions that had taken place on Orcas. An Orcas resident who had attended the meetings, however, also was hesitant about the idea of a vacation rental moratorium.

“Many of us [at the meetings] were actually vacation rental owners who disagreed with what was being said but there was no opportunity to voice our concerns,” Orcas resident Linda Bannerman said. “We all want a lovely island, we all want to protect our sustainable incomes, so please have a discussion that really does take into consideration all of the factors.”

Bannerman has a permitted vacation rental in a cottage on her property. She said she would be unable to live on Orcas, a place she’s wanted to reside for a long time, without the extra income that vacation rental provides.

At the end of the public comment period, each council member made a statement to the audience.

Hughes thanked the speakers and said there are a lot of things to consider.

“I think we as a community need to come together to find solutions that are long term and valuable for every member of the community, not just a certain mentality,” Hughes said. “I also think it’s important to realize that until we can find good ways to bring revenue to our community, that we have to support the people that are trying to live here and are doing a good job.”

Council chair member Jamie Stephens pointed out that the council spent 18 months working on regulations and that anyone who is witnessing code violations in vacation rentals should reach out to the code enforcement officer for their area. Councilmember Bill Watson also referenced the 45-page vacation rental ordinance the county council approved in March 2018.

“Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you you’re about a year and a half late,” Watson said. “I’m proud to say this council was proactive on this issue, we spent 18 months discussing it. We had public hearings. It went through the planning commission. We examined every single issue that you raised today and we came up with what we thought was a balanced, fair, implementable and enforceable set of regulations.”

Watson said he would be happy to consider regulation recommendations if the people concerned with vacation rentals if they came to him with that information, however, he noted, the people speaking did not have any implementable suggestions. He said that the commenters were doing the council a disservice by not acknowledging the 18-month process the county went through to develop the existing regulations.

“We’re quite aware of the issues and the problems that vacation rentals cause to the communities. As I said, we discussed it for 18 months. We had public hearings. We had very little public input in that process,” Watson said. “I understand your passion, I understand your concerns. We were there, we had these discussions. So this is not a ‘Council has their head in the sand and is not paying attention to community issues.’ We dealt with it the best we thought we could in a balanced and fair way.”

To read the San Juan County Vacation Rental Ordinance Amendment adopted in March 2018, visit