It was a summer unlike any other, but council chairperson Rick Hughes says the San Juans fared better than other counties.
“San Juan County is the safest in the state, and we qualified for some of the schools — the private schools — to reopen,” Hughes said. “We haven’t had a COVID case in four weeks and we’ve had no deaths. Most of the cases came from locals going somewhere else and contracting it, so we’ve able to contract trace really well. We were the first county on the west coast to adopt a mask ordinance. We have the highest employment rate in the state. The ferries have been a disaster this year, which made it hard for folks, but we’ve had a good summer — if you can have a good summer during a crisis. I’m really proud of everyone.”
Hughes thanked San Juan County Health Officer Dr. Frank James and the staff of the county department of health for their leadership in handling the county’s COVID-19 response.
“And a lot of really good people in the nonprofit sectors have worked so hard to keep our community safe. It’s been great to see how many positive things have happened,” he said.
Real estate and vacation rentals
Hughes says the real estate market has experienced a significant boon during the pandemic, which will have a positive effect on the community because of the real estate excise tax. In 2018, county voters approved a 0.5 percent REET to support the development of affordable housing in the county. The tax is assessed on the purchase and sale of real property within the county, with the buyer paying 99 percent of the tax and the seller paying 1 percent. According to Hughes, the REET is the highest it’s ever been.
“Businesses that were essential are doing okay, and real estate and construction have been at a high point. Smaller shops that cater to a certain clientele have struggled. Everyone says we are a tourist-based economy — and we are — but all of our businesses are an inter-related entity in this community. We have to figure out how to get through the winter and how that looks. … Some people who had second homes in the San Juans are now here more often because they can work from home. The county has been predicting a 1 percent growth per year but that could change with more people being here.”
Hughes wrote a guest column in mid-September about the county’s response to vacation rentals during the pandemic.
“Of the 963 total vacation rental permits in San Juan County, 331 permits are flagged as non-compliant per SJC code,” he wrote. “All of these are currently in the Code Enforcement Process, which is managed by a dedicated Code Enforcement Officer whose primary focus is monitoring existing permit holders and pursuing enforcement on unpermitted rentals.”
He offered the following information.
• It’s anticipated that most of the non-compliant permits currently under review will fail to prove compliance by the required date (December 2020), which will result in their permits being revoked. This would bring the total of active permits in the county down to approximately 450.
• San Juan County has already shut down 41 unpermitted vacation rentals and levied over $100,000 in fines. The county is committed to strict enforcement of adopted codes; ongoing monitoring of the broader impact of vacation rentals on our community; and regular updates of regulations and code to ensure vacation rentals provide a net benefit going forward.
• The fine for operating a vacation rental without a permit is $2,300. The county relies heavily on the public to report such violations, as they are much less visible to our enforcement bodies. If you are aware of someone operating a rental without a permit, contact the planning department at 360-378-2354.
• Another revision of the Vacation Rental Code is about to be presented to the planning commission. It will include even stronger regulations and require permit holders to contribute to the community through annual fees.
“When COVID-19 landed in the PNW earlier this year, this local conversation around vacation rentals and their impact on our community gained a whole new meaning,” Hughes wrote. “With a third of our population aged 65 and older, the County Council was well aware that our county — with one of the most vulnerable populations in the region — required fast, dramatic action to ensure everyone’s safety. This is why the County Council, who are the operators of the Public Health Department and members of the SJC Board of Health, in consultation with the Public Health Officer — enacted some of the most rigid and, ultimately, effective recommendations and regulations seen on the entire West Coast.”
The county also authorized $40,000 out of the council budget to run advertising asking people to not visit the San Juans, a campaign that was ultimately so successful it gained attention from Governor Jay Inslee.
“After effectively curbing the initial COVID spread in our region, the County Council cautiously moved the county to Phase 2,” wrote Hughes. “When we did, vacation rental properties were technically allowed to operate at 50 percent of capacity. Given the recommended downtime before cleaning and time between guests, however, most rentals were operating below this capacity. Some (such as single-day rentals) were running at a capacity of 25 percent or lower. It should be said that, at the request of the County, many of our residents who rely upon such income shouldered a huge financial burden to help keep our community safe and healthy. My appreciation for this cooperation is hard to put into words, but I can assure you it is felt by all of us at the County who worked together to make these difficult decisions. There were certainly some who didn’t comply. In weekly meetings with our Sheriff’s Department, I discussed the many, many calls made to report such violations. Even with the limited law enforcement resources in the county, I was assured that each and every call was investigated. These follow-ups revealed a large majority of law-abiding citizens and a few who definitely were at fault. Those in noncompliance are being held to task at the County’s request.”