Whatcom Planning Commission gives vacation-rental rules cold reception

Saying the rules were redundant or unneeded, planning commissioners last month appeared unwilling to recommend rules regulating vacation rentals in Whatcom County.

The public is not yet finished weighing in with the commission, however, with a public hearing set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, in the Northwest Annex conference room, 5280 Northwest Drive.

For now, vacation rentals — 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 would require vacation rentals to meet standards for parking, utilities, the number of guests, and guest behavior.

The County Council decided in September to pursue new rules 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 Birch Bay, Glacier and Lake Whatcom. The proposed rules would apply only in the unincorporated county, not in cities such as Bellingham or Blaine. Vacation rentals would be allowed anywhere in the county that allows bed-and-breakfasts.

Before the council formally considers changing any land-use rule, it is reviewed by the Planning Commission, which then makes a recommendation to the council.

Most commissioners who spoke on the vacation-rental issue at a meeting last month indicated they were not inclined to recommend new rules for vacation rentals.

The commission discussed the proposal Dec. 11 and took comments that night from vacation-rental owners in the audience.

Ryan Lorimer, who owns three vacation rentals and a 12-unit apartment building in Bellingham, said home rentals generate far fewer complaints than his apartments.

“The vacation rentals are a really short duration, and usually if there is an issue it’s resolved very quickly, in house,” he told the commission. “I have never had a police phone call in five years, in probably 2,000 rentals.”

Rental-home owners already place strict rules on their guests, Lorimer said — a point picked up by some of the commissioners.

“There’s a lot of good self-policing going on here, so why does Whatcom County need to regulate?” Commissioner Gary Honcoop said.

“This just seems like regulations to have regulations,” said Commissioner Ben Elenbaas. “Virtually everything is addressed somewhere else in the code.”

Commissioner Sam Taylor said he wanted rules that wouldn’t be felt by the vacation-rental owners whose guests weren’t causing problems for neighbors.

“I’m not trying to impact these people,” Taylor said. “And if I … hear that (a rule) is going to significantly impact them for some reason, I probably wouldn’t support it.”

Although they didn’t speak at the Dec. 11 meeting, some who oppose unregulated vacation rentals have been heard by county officials.

“We as property owners have rights as well, to peaceful evenings without constant hotel/transient activities, 10 feet from our single family residence,” said Lake Whatcom resident Sally Harper in a Sept. 16 email to county and Bellingham leaders.

Harper questioned the wisdom of allowing large groups to stay along Lake Whatcom, which is about to come under a state-mandated requirement to reduce phosphorus pollution, which comes from storm runoff and leaking septic systems.

In her email, Harper proposed allowing vacation rentals in other parts of the county but banning them at Lake Whatcom.