Council chooses modest RV cap and island-sensitive allocations
||| BY MATTHEW GILBERT, THE ORCASONIAN OP-ED REPORTER |||
More than 100 people showed up — most virtually, even though the meeting room was full — for the May 17, 2022 meeting of the San Juan County Board, drawn by the heat surrounding two public hearings:
- Consider passing an ordinance establishing a cap on vacation rental permits for residences or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) not to exceed 1,200 permits countywide; SJCC Amendment 18.40.275
- Consider removal of a Planning Commissioner in accordance with RCW 36.70.110
The second hearing was quickly canceled after a motion by Jamie Stephens, who felt there was little evidence or context. He was joined by Christine Minney and Cindy Wolf, who had submitted the initial motion for the hearing.
And although again plagued by technical difficulties, the first hearing went more or less as planned as the end (July 13) of the moratorium on vacation rental (RV) licenses loomed.
DCD planner Sophia Cassam kicked things off with a presentation that briefly summed up the story of this marathon debate, noting that caps “at or below current numbers will stop the acceptance of new RV permit applications. . . until enough existing permits are surrendered, expire or revoked for non-compliance.
More than 60 people intervened in a comment period that lasted almost three hours, reflecting most of what has already been said in the previous two years of discussions and hearings. Callers from San Juan once again took up most of the airtime, and a few new sightings stood out:
- Those against the caps – mostly from San Juan Island – have often described those in favor of the caps as “anti-tourism” and eager to sabotage the local economy.
- Frequent claims of “insufficient data” to justify a cap lead to claims of insufficient data on the harms of a cap. There is data on both sides, although incomplete.
- More recently, a county database search by Lopez residents Chom and Chris Greacen found that 57% of vacation rentals countywide (82% on Lopez) are owned by nonresidents ( but not necessarily corporations), and more than half of all VR property sales on Lopez over the past two years were corporations.
- A member of the local ferry advisory committee wondered why you would want more people to come to the islands (more accommodation correlates to more traffic) when the system is basically down and no new capacity can be expected before 20 years.
There were four options on the table for setting the number of VR ceilings:
- Active and compliant as of July 31, 2021 – 413
- July 31 Compliant – 650
- Originally “floated” by the Council – 1,200
- Complies with the date of adoption of the ordinance – 731 (as of May 6)
There are currently approximately 200 non-compliant permit holders. DCD Director David Williams expects around 70% of them will likely comply after another six months of continued enforcement efforts.
Jamie Stephens started the discussion by saying he supported a concrete cap number (as opposed to a figure based on a percentage of the total number of residential units) and proposed a five-year review – although it was later pointed out that the Council could review and modify these figures. at any time. Christine Minney agreed to a concrete cap but suggested going “beyond the existing four options” to meet individual island needs.
Wolf then proposed a cap of 211 on Orcas, reflecting the community’s lingering sentiment to set the cap at “Active and Compliant” as first proposed by the Planning Commission in July 2021 prior to its Commissioners rollover and advocated ever since. a long time by the Vacation Rental Task Force. [Note: Wolf had added five new “findings” to the proposed ordinance that described the history of meetings and public sentiment behind the push for caps, most notably on Orcas.]
Stephens, citing testimonials that RV owners need and use their rentals for a variety of reasons “not just to make money [but] so they can continue to live here, so they can keep a home with their families,” chose 135 for Lopez to provide room for growth – a 10% increase over current, compliant and non-compliant.
Minney, recognizing that RV impacts are not being felt to the same degree on San Juan as they are on Orcas, chose 337 as the cap: the current number of all permits that are both compliant and not as of May 6.
And so, in the end, the Council settled on a number of county-wide cap compromises between Options 1 and 3 that also respected the zeitgeist of each island:
- San Juan: 337 (there are currently 136 active and compliant permits, 93 compliant but inactive, and 71 non-compliant)
- Orcs: 211 (207 compliant-active / 159 compliant-inactive / 90 non-compliant)
- Lopez: 135 (56 compliant-active / 38 compliant-inactive / 27 non-compliant)
- Outer Islands: 10 (2 / 7)
The final language, along with updated results supporting these numbers, will be summarized in a new order. The permits available for each island will be drawn at the beginning of each calendar year.
It should also be noted that compliant but inactive permit holders can activate at any time. Thus, in the case of Orcas, there could, hypothetically, be up to 334 active rental units in addition to the number of non-compliant permits (a 90%) that come into compliance. Still, the result effectively freezes the number of new apps for years to come and is a long-sought victory for Wolf and the VRWG.
Wolf then thanked the Council for their patience in this “tumultuous” process, adding “I want to say to the people of Orcas, I heard those of you for whom this is not something you wanted to see, [but] together we’ll find out what’s going on with these plugs and I’ll keep listening.
“To the people who wanted to see this happen, it was a campaign promise I made, and I have now delivered.”