by Toby Cooper
Vacation Rental Work Group member
Through the magic of COVID-era Zoom, Lisa Byers sits comfortably in a virtual office, her persona reduced to the confines of a full-color square on a screen. Characteristically unruffled, she radiates diplomacy – refreshing in this age of uber-polarization – and percolates ideas.
The Lisa we know wears many hats, but none so propitiously in this election season as that of Vice-Chair of the Vacation Rental Work Group, the Eastsound-based vacation rental reform effort now into its second year of operation.
As I sat down with her to discuss post-election San Juan County issues, especially what to do about those pesky vacation rentals, I found her undeniably passionate, laser-focused on the search for rational solutions, and full of surprises.
TC. Lisa, in 2008 you ran for county council, losing to now-outgoing Councilmember Rick Hughes. What was going through your mind on Election Night 2020?
LB. It was not easy to lose in 2008, of course. I had put out a lot of effort. Maybe it was an itch I had to satisfy. But in the course of running, I came to recognize that I am more of a private person than I thought I was, and the level of exposure and intrusion into my private life was actually shocking to me. So, I felt then and recall now a sense of relief.
TC. Any regrets?
LB. None. One of my memories is of Mary Rivland, who worked on the campaign, who said to me, “Well, Lisa, the universe has something else in mind for you.” I came away refreshed, and now after nearly 25 years as Executive Director of the OPAL Community Land Trust, past President of the Orcas Food Co-op, past President of the National Community Land Trust Network, and more, I see how true that was.
TC. Today you have carved out the time to play an effective role in helping to lead the VRWG, which has become a leading community force. How have you achieved that balance?
LB. I have found that in my life, working full time, I have time for one significant volunteer effort. When I began to hear so many stories, anecdotally, about the erosion of our community cohesion and the evictions, I knew what I had to do.
People still come into the OPAL office desperately seeking housing, not because the owner of their rental has chosen to sell the property, but because they have simply decided to convert to VR. I saw it as a pattern and a threat to the quality of life. So I joined, knowing full well it would be a journey. I knew from the start that we were in mile-one of a marathon.
TC. But what is it about VRs that is so uniquely challenging?
LB. It is that loss of community. The islands have a long history of resorts with cabins and independent space and kitchens. We all enjoy that. But it has become too much of a good thing. We are at risk of swamping the boat. In fact, we have already crossed that line. We are creating an economic engine that cannot be satiated. There are always going to be people who want more, more, more. We need to establish limits.
This is a really precious place. We love these islands and the unique balance of ecosystem, environment, and community. It takes hard work to maintain that balance in the face of many, many other people who want to visit here.
TC. Here in this small community, some VR owners are also our friends and neighbors. Have you experienced animosity on a personal level?
LB. Honestly, most of the VR owners I have met are glad we are having this conversation. Many of them like the idea of a “cap,” which could actually confer on them a competitive advantage. They really care about the community and they share that view that some things about VRs are good –but too much of a good thing is bad.
TC. Do you believe that the incoming councilmembers will live up to their pledges to address VR reforms to the level the VRWG is seeking?
LB. Absolutely I do. I believe they are very committed. At the same time, we know that upon taking office they are going to face an onslaught of issues and competing demands – from Covid and its economic fallout, from bureaucratic inertia at the County level, and more. But I absolutely believe San Juan County has the political will and the resources to address this problem.
TC. Why do you think it has come to the level of a campaign issue?
LB. Good question. One of the things I love about this community is the incredible “person power” we have here, the caliber and the amazing life-experiences of the people who come here. Why, then, are we not a leader in sustainable energy production, for example, or in care for the ecological sensitivity of this precious Archipelago. Sometimes I am dumbfounded. We should be leading the charge for sustainable living. I know we can do better.
TC. So if the county turned and gave you the gavel for one magic day, one moment of truth to solve this problem, what would you do?
LB. I would bang that gavel and order in the most diverse, talented, thoughtful group of citizens I could find and we would come up with a collective answer. Is that a cop-out? I am a collaborative person at heart and we are stronger when we work collectively. The thing is, this is essentially what we are doing now.
TC. For many reasons, we are glad to see 2020 come to a close. Is there anything else you wish to share?
LB. Through the pandemic, I have been both affirmed in my sense of how strong we are as a community and still happily surprised at the degree to which we have stood up and cared for each other. It has been a source of inspiration for me, and hope. Journalist and UW professor David Domke describes Stacy Abrams this way – and I think it’s true for the Orcas community too: “Strong back, Soft Front.” I am so glad I live here.