By Valerie A. Jusela
County Residents Will Bear the Burden.
San Juan County’s residents face possibly crippling liabilities from county failures thus far to effectively regulate short-term or “vacation rental” permittees in our community.
As a career business analyst in the areas of taxation, contracts, and insurance, I have found mounting evidence that dire liabilities lurk in the regulatory shadows, potentially threatening the county’s financial viability and the well-being of all its citizens.
I will highlight three regulatory areas of concern: liability insurance, private roads, and communication infrastructure.
The plain language of WA state law – specifically RCW 64.37.040 and RCW 64.37.050 – requires short-term rental operators to carry “liability insurance … in the aggregate of not less than one million dollars …”
Inexplicably, these two code sections are not referenced in San Juan County’s VR Permit Application nor in the annual VR Certificate of Compliance. Thus, the county seems to have no data on the adequacy of commercial general liability coverage where it is needed most and legally required.
This non-enforcement exposes the county and its residents to uninsured liability in the event of an accident or fire. A single lawsuit could force the county into receivership. All residents would bear a fearsome financial cost to settle such a judgement.
When Chelan County looked at this, the Chelan Short Term Rental App was afforded a simple fix by adding almost universally-required “penalty of perjury” language to “… certify (or declare) under penalty of perjury under the laws of the State of Washington that the foregoing is true, correct and complete.”
In fact, Chelan County’s 2021 Short Term Rental Code provides a comprehensive model, is legally sound, and covers all of the requisite bases; Fire and Safety Inspection, Insurance, and Building Code Regulations.
Private Roads, Road Associations, and HOA’s.
San Juan County’s now one-year old VR moratorium completely lacks protection for designated Rural Residential or Rural Farm Forest areas, and we have no assurance that eventual new regulations will do better. But these areas still need medivac and emergency service. Meanwhile, our recent mix of flooding and deep-freeze temperatures exposed the vulnerability of our private roads, many of which became temporarily impassable.
Yet, there is no shortage of short-term rentals and their guests on our vulnerable private roads. When the eventual – or inevitable – accident-followed-by-lawsuit happens, both the county and these private associations will likely be named. If non-compliance with county road standards and VR traffic are judged to be causal, private roads could lose their insurance and be placed in surplus lines which would starkly increase their premiums as much as 25-fold.
The ultimate financial burden falls on us, the county residents.
Lastly, in the effort to keep our island guests safe, all short-term rentals must have a working landline. The lives and safety of island guests are simply too dear to depend solely on cell phone technology and reliability. In any emergency, a guest must have layers of communication infrastructure available.
In summary, the San Juan County Planning Commission and our County Council need to integrate basic community liabilities into their efforts at regulatory reform. All our residents and guests alike deserve these essential protections.