Whatcom County to write rules for vacation rentals

The Wild West era of vacation rentals in Whatcom County may soon be over.

The County Council on Tuesday, Sept. 16, asked planning staff to write up rules to regulate private homes that are rented to visitors for less than a month at a time. A cottage industry that is now unregulated may soon face requirements for maximum occupancy, adequate sanitation, parking and safety.

County planners likely will start by coming up with a definition for “vacation rentals.” Because there is no definition or even mention of them in the code, vacation rentals operate in a regulatory vacuum in the county. The only significant requirement they must meet is to register with the state as a business and pay state sales tax.

Problems at vacation rentals came to the attention of the council in May, when neighbors on Lake Whatcom complained about noise and traffic at all hours in their quiet residential neighborhood on North Shore Road.

North Shore resident Paul Taylor said vacation rentals may make sense in Birch Bay or Glacier, where they fit more seamlessly into the community. He believed they should be prohibited on Lake Whatcom, where by his count 14 vacation rentals already exist. He said they conflicted with the council’s goal to reduce the phosphorus pollution in the lake caused by development — including overworked septic systems.

“I can’t imagine how having hotels on the shores of Lake Whatcom is good for the lake. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s next-door neighbor, Don Gustafson, rents part of his home to vacationers and says 90 percent of his neighbors’ complaints are “absolutely mistruths.” He pointed out that by paying sales tax on his businesses, he benefits the community.

Gustafson said he was willing to see rules on vacation rentals but not bans in certain parts of the county. The council generally agreed, asking planners to write up a list of requirements but not to limit vacation rentals by geography.

Council members wanted to make sure the requirements included a limit on the number of guests based on how much the house’s septic system could handle — “especially in the Lake Whatcom watershed,” council member Pete Kremen said.

Staff will prepare the list for the county Planning Commission, which will review it next year and recommend rules for final consideration by the council.