For first time, owners of vacation rentals facing regulations from Whatcom County

A screenshot of VRBO’s webpage Wednesday, Sept. 21 shows 46 rentals available in the Lake Whatcom area alone.
A screenshot of VRBO’s webpage Wednesday, Sept. 21 shows 46 rentals available in the Lake Whatcom area alone.

If you own a vacation rental in Whatcom County, you will have to register it if the County Council adopts rules for what has so far been an unregulated and popular cottage industry.

In addition, the owners of vacation rentals in the Lake Whatcom watershed also would have to get a conditional use permit, an added step to protect the source of drinking water for about 100,000 residents in Whatcom County, including Bellingham.

Vacation rentals – in practice, private homes or rooms in homes that are rented to vacationers for up to a month – are unregulated by the county, making them legal at any single-family residence. The proposed rules also would make it possible to tax vacation rentals and require they meet standards for parking, septic systems, safety, maximum number of guests and guest behavior.

If adopted, the new rules would apply only to unincorporated Whatcom County, not in cities such as Bellingham or Blaine. Under the changes, vacation rentals would be allowed anywhere in the county that allows bed and breakfasts, which are facing some rule changes.

The County Council decided in 2014 to pursue regulations after hearing complaints from neighbors about groups of 20 or more partying loudly late into the night, particularly on North Shore Road along Lake Whatcom.

Hundreds of vacation rentals operate throughout the county, with concentrations in scenic Birch Bay, Glacier and Lake Whatcom. Planners found roughly 400 such rentals that would fall under the county’s jurisdiction by searching through listings on popular websites VRBO and Airbnb.

The council is expected to decide on the rules in 2017, after the state Department of Ecology looks at the portion that deals with shorelines and hearings that will allow the public to weigh in.

Reactions were mixed about the proposals.

Lake Whatcom resident Sally Harper has been concerned about allowing such vacation rentals along Lake Whatcom, saying the numbers are growing while the lake is under a state-mandated requirement to reduce phosphorus pollution, which comes from storm runoff and leaking septic systems.

“I feel like I’m the only one saying ‘What about the lake? What about the lake?’ And why are we increasing tourist use?” Harper told the County Council’s Planning and Development Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

“We did make it a conditional use permit (for the Lake Whatcom watershed), which is a pretty high bar to get through,” responded County Council member Carl Weimer, who is on the committee.

Don Gustafson, who rents out the lower part of his North Shore Road house to visitors, isn’t opposed to rules relating to safety or building codes but wondered why properties in the Lake Whatcom watershed should have different regulations.

“It’s a huge waste of everybody’s time, a huge waste of the council’s time,” Gustafson said in an interview. “This should have never got to this point. For the most part, vacation rentals by owner are self-controlled, self-managed.”

As for whether he would seek a conditional use permit: “I just don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s going to be a long, arduous process. I know in our particular area there’s some people that will go to any extent to stop it.”

What could be ahead for vacation rental owners

Here are other things that people need to know about the county’s proposed rules for such short-term rentals:

▪ A vacation rental would be defined as a dwelling rented to individuals or families for fewer than 30 days. The owner couldn’t be there during that time. The entire space would have to be rented out instead of individually by room.

▪ The county could yank the registration if its Planning and Development Services Department has cited the owner for two or more code violations within a year.

▪ The owner would have to be part of the county’s Vacation Rental Registry, which would include a 24-hour contact in case there are problems. The contact information would be posted on the county’s website online or on the rental. The fee for registering hasn’t been determined, nor the fine for not registering.

▪ The property must be inspected.

▪ A state business license, including the Unified Business Identifier number, must be provided to the county. That in turn allows for tracking for tax purposes.

▪ The owner of a vacation rental next to the Lake Whatcom shoreline would have to give renters information about keeping aquatic invasive species out of the lake.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea