Neighbors bring complaints about Lake Whatcom vacation rentals to County Council

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 8, 2014 

To hear neighbors describe it, homes on the east shore of Lake Whatcom, along North Shore Road, are the scenes of loud late-night parties. Rowdy groups are singing karaoke on the beach at 2 a.m. and having bonfires at 3 a.m.

These aren't residents, either. They're vacationers renting one of three homes in the neighborhood for a few days or several weeks.

"It was every day of the week in the summer last summer," said Tani Sutley, who lives on Homestead Way off North Shore Road. "We all have to go to work the next day."

But vacation-rental owners in the neighborhood say the complaints against them have been exaggerated, and they require their guests to keep the noise down at night.

Sutley and a handful of her neighbors appeared Tuesday, May 6, at a Whatcom County Council committee meeting to voice their concerns over the vacation rentals, or VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner). The North Shore Road vacation rentals appear on the website vrbo.com, advertising rates of up to $525 a night.

The website says these vacation rentals allow at most 10 overnight guests, but neighbors said groups of 20 or more have been at the houses.

"We've had groups as large as 40 people. We've had groups of 20, and they're not even events. They're just families getting together, that are big and loud," North Shore Road resident Denise Mendelsohn told members of the council on Tuesday.

County officials can't do anything in the short term. Vacation rentals are not clearly regulated in the county code. Council won't get its first opportunity to debate new rules for vacation rentals for at least three months.

County attorney Royce Buckingham said the code can be interpreted in a way that would prohibit vacation rentals because it defines a resident of a single-family home as someone who lives there and works in the area, not a visitor.

Buckingham would not advise the council to shut down vacation rentals, a product of the Internet age, based on this decades-old code language.

"I don't believe that we're going to go out and close down all the rentals. Legally my department, I don't think, will win that," Buckingham told council.

Vacation rentals are a generally accepted part of the communities and the economies of Birch Bay and Glacier, Buckingham said.

But at Lake Whatcom, he said, council might conclude that some restrictions need to be put in place.

"They've become big enough that they are actually an annoyance to neighbors and a problem in some ways," Buckingham said.

The three vacation-rental owners said they put strict rules on their guests. The owners keep a limit on the number of guests, require damage deposits, and some of them said they inform their guests of quiet hours and ask them to be respectful of the neighbors.

Cindy Walker, a real estate agent in White Rock, B.C., owns one of the three houses. She said she has never had a complaint.

"I only rent to families that fit in the house," Walker said.

The other two houses on the road are not causing problems either, she said.

"I think that those neighbors are fabricating stories," Walker said.

Walker said reasonable rules should be written for vacation rentals, but not without the owners' input.

"All us VRBO people are going to fight back," she said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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