By Ian Ferguson
A recent stir over vacation rentals in Whatcom County has prompted the planning commission to recommend they be permitted in the zoning code without additional regulation.
Birch Bay is a hot spot for the modern phenomenon of “vacation rentals by owner,” (VRBO), which are rooms or houses that homeowners rent out to vacationers for extra income. Unlike hotels, hostels or inns, they are often in residential zones and they typically don’t consist of multiple units rented out concurrently.
Vacation rental owners must acquire a business license from the state, and they pay a lodging tax that goes to state and county coffers. According to the popular vacation rental website airbnb.com, there are 737 rentals in Birch Bay.
Currently, the Whatcom County zoning code does not address vacation rentals, but noise complaints from a neighborhood on Lake Whatcom have prompted the county council, planning and development services and the Whatcom County Planning Commission to take a closer look at the industry and decide if more rules should be put in place.
A draft amendment compiled by planning and development services in September included regulations to address issues such as parking, signage, occupancy and septic systems. At a January 8 public hearing, more than a dozen rental owners from across the county said those regulations would harm an industry that brings visitors to the county and dollars to the local economy.
Based on public testimony and correspondence, the commission ultimately decided that the noise complaints in the Lake Whatcom neighborhood were an isolated incident, and that regulations already set forth for various zones in the zoning code were sufficient regulation.
The commission voted 8–1 to recommend that vacation rentals be added as an accessory use wherever single-family dwellings are permitted, without requirements beyond those already outlined in the zoning code.
“We think these should be permitted. For now I don’t think any extra regulation is necessary. I think it can be taken care of through law enforcement or the health department as necessary,” commissioner Sam Taylor said.
Whatcom County Council will consider the planning commission’s recommendations at a future meeting.