San Juan County installs vacation rental caps | Guest column

County Council adopts island-by-island limits to proliferation

Submitted by Toby Cooper.

San Juan County, like many of the nation’s top tourist destinations, has imposed statutory limits on short-term “vacation rental” accommodations widely available through on-line booking.

The County Council voted unanimously (3-0) on May 17 to put caps in place on short-term vacation rentals after several years of intense public debate. The Council and the County Planning Commission collectively held seven public hearings on the issue since 2019 and compiled a massive public comment record on the issue.

“We’re glad the Council finally resolved the issue after so many months of spirited discussion,” said Yonatan Aldort, founder of the all-volunteer Vacation Rental Working Group (VRWG). “Everyone in our island community had their say and now it’s time to move on.”

The vacation rental caps in San Juan County mirror the tightening of regulation on short-term vacation rentals in many other parts of the U.S. and the world. Places as diverse as Amsterdam, Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, and Carmel have tightened regulations in recent years to protect local communities.

VRs mushroomed in popularity after Airbnb launched its website in 2009. Today, Airbnb alone sponsors over seven million listings worldwide in more than 100,000 cities in 220 countries and regions. Other vacation rental platforms, such as VRBO, further expanded tourism in communities unprepared for its negative impacts.

“This Council decision provides a path forward that allows digital-age tourism and still protects the interests of all island residents,” said Aldort. “Until now, it has been painful to see many previously tranquil residential areas transformed into something fundamentally undesirable and quite different from what county residents chose when they elected to live here.”

Cindy Wolf, a member of the County Council, led the effort to cap short-term vacation rentals.

“Cindy was firm, diplomatic, fair, and informed,” said VRWG committee member Diane Berreth. “Her tireless efforts to consider all points and view led to the unanimous decision.”

Said Councilmember Wolf at the end of the County Council’s seven-hour meeting on Tuesday: “This was a campaign promise. The community spoke, and we delivered.”

The scale and scope of the short-term vacation rental trend presents a daunting picture to many.

In part due to the cosmopolitan nature of the VR marketplace, the ownership of San Juan County VR properties has become dominated by out-of-county and corporate entities.

Lopezians Chom and Chris Greacen combed line-by-line through the County database and found that over 50 percent of VRs countywide and fully 82 percent of VR properties on Lopez are registered to out-of-county addresses.

“We were surprised to learn how many VR properties on Lopez are in the hands of non-residents, and that half of all VR property sales on Lopez in the last two years were to corporate entities,” said Chom. “We now know that the lion’s share of the economic benefits VRs bring in are simply being exported to off-island bank accounts while local residents grapple with the impacts.”

About the caps.

Tabulated below are the island-by-island cap numbers approved by County Council on Tuesday, May 17.

The new VR caps do not take away existing active or inactive permits that are fully compliant with county regulatory requirements and fees. If the number of permits on a given island is above the cap, no new permits will be issued until the number of permits has fallen below the cap through abandonment, revocation, or other voluntary attrition.

Orcas: 211

San Juan: 337

Lopez :135

All other islands combined: 10

Total: 693

(By local rules, Shaw and Waldron do not allow VRs.)

Please note: final numbers should be sourced from San Juan County official records.

About the Vacation Rental Working Group

The VRWG is an all-volunteer organization formed in June 2019 to mobilize our community in order to regulate vacation rentals in a manner that protects our rural character, environment and culture in the San Juan Islands.