Some still seek vacation rental moratorium

Eight months after making their initial request, some islanders are still asking the county council to place a moratorium on new vacation rental permits.

More than 30 people spoke about vacation rentals during the San Juan County Council meeting’s public access time. The council held its regular Feb. 4 meeting on Orcas Island, the first of two scheduled there for this year.

A petition on has garnered more than 2,500 signatures requesting the county put a moratorium on new vacation rental permits.

“It stops the bleeding,” Toby Cooper, who lives on Orcas, said. “It brings everyone to the table. We’re motivated to seek solutions.”

Cooper is one of the founding members of the Orcas Island Vacation Rental Working Group, which formed in July 2019 in an effort to begin a community conversation about the growing number of vacation rentals in the county.

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. This information does not include hotels, resorts or bed and breakfasts. There is also no data on illegal vacation rental accommodations.

“We’re already past the tipping point,” workgroup member Lynnette Wood said. “We’ve already tipped.”

Wood said that there are some neighborhoods wherein there are more vacation rentals than owner-occupied houses. She encouraged a lottery system for new vacation rental permits, similar to what the county already has for accessory dwelling units.

“We didn’t plan on living in a neighborhood of hotels,” wrote islanders Mike and Laura Miller in a letter read aloud during the meeting.

Orcas islander Charles Toxey provided suggestions from the Eastsound Planning Review Committee include restricting new construction from housing a vacation rental for up to a decade; only allowing one vacation rental per parcel; not allowing non-residents to operate more than one vacation rental; having permits expire on sale of property; and prohibiting parties and weddings. Toxey said the EPRC would also like to have two tiers of vacation rentals based on the owner’s residential status, whether it is on-site or out of the county.

In May 2019, the EPRC voted to request the San Juan County Council enact 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, the vacation rental working group formed and held three community meetings on Orcas. Councilmember Rick Hughes attended all three meetings.

This isn’t the first time numerous Orcas residents have approached council during a regular meeting to plead for a moratorium. The group organized a trip from Orcas to Friday Harbor in November 2019 to speak during public access time as well.

At that time, 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.

At the Feb. 4 meeting, Orcas resident Bob Gamble suggested San Juan County place a cap on the number of vacation rental permits it allows. He referenced Long Beach, California, a city with more than 460,000 residents, which capped its permitted unhosted short-term rentals at 1,000 units.

“This is snowballing,” Gamble said. “It’s the outside, wealthy people that are going to destroy this community.”

County Councilmember Rick Hughes explained that the council has discussed concerns regarding vacation rentals, and added the county staff is working on a solution. He said the county is working to address almost all of the concerns brought forth regarding vacation rentals recently.

“We have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the people who are doing it illegally,” Hughes said. “There’s a multi-tiered path that council gave staff for how we want to deal with this.”

Hughes noted the county is also currently working on the comprehensive plan and is hoping to include some of the regulations within that document. He said the county is looking into limiting the number of rentals permitted annually and considering the lottery-style process for granting permits.

“We need to do better,” Hughes said. “We agree with what you’re saying. … This will be, in this community, an evolving scenario. It’s just not a very easy situation.”