The conversation regarding vacation rentals continues in San Juan County, with a local nonprofit hosting a trio of forums on the topic.
“There’s no denying that vacation rental is a hot topic these days and there are loads of strong feelings around the issues,” Diane Craig, co-facilitator and Sounder reporter, said at the first forum on June 9.
San Juan Island Community Network is a local group seeking to find community solutions to problems facing the islands. Craig explained in the intro the forums are not a hearing, nor a town hall, but rather a way for people with differing opinions on a topic — in this case, vacation rentals — to have a discussion with no preconceived outcomes.
Co-facilitating with Craig was Michael Soltman, former San Juan Island School District Superintendent and an executive coach. Panelists included Toby Cooper, a founding member of the Vacation Rental Working Group who resides on Orcas; Jan Scilipoti, a founding member of Hosting on the Rock who lives on Lopez; San Juan County Chair member Jamie Stephens, who also lives on Lopez; and researcher Doug Whittaker, with whom the county worked to develop some of its statistical data on tourism.
“Tonight we want to discover together and understand what are the issues in place here,” Soltman said. “What are the problems we’re trying to solve and how can we move forward together to address these issues.”
SJICN identified three topics of discussion for its vacation rental forums — Discovery was the theme of June 9’s forum. The remaining two are Common Ground, from 7-9 p.m. on June 17; and Collaborative Action, from 7-9 p.m. on June 24. More information and a link to the first forum are available at www.sjicn.org/forums.
According to organizers, approximately 150 people watched the first forum either via Zoom, YouTube or Facebook.
The four panelists presented their cases to the audience.
The Orcas Island Vacation Rental Working Group, which Cooper represented, formed in July 2019 in an effort to begin a community conversation about the growing number of vacation rentals in the county. Hosting on the Rock is a far newer entity, forming when the moratorium was enacted, and is comprised of vacation rental owners from around the county.
Stephens was there to represent the county and the information it has regarding the rentals and moratorium and Whittaker provided balance on looking at statistics and data as opposed to relying heavily on anecdotal evidence.
“Just remember, you’ve got good values and most people agree with them,” Whittaker said.
On Jan. 13, the county paused permit approval and enacted a six-month moratorium countywide. The pause is to consider the concerns brought up by the working group, including but not limited to: included wanting to “reduce the erosion” of long-term rentals; protecting the islands’ rural character; and focusing on maintaining the quality of life in neighborhoods and in the islands as a whole by addressing the quality and quantity of short-term rentals.
On Feb. 23, the San Juan County Council held a public hearing regarding that moratorium and heard more than two hours of public testimony causing them to reconsider the scope of the moratorium. San Juan County Community Development Director Erika Shook stated at that meeting that the county had issued permits for 1,002 vacation rentals — 430 were active; 202 inactive; and the remaining were non-compliant.
Recognizing that vacation rentals aren’t as big of a problem in some places of the islands, the San Juan County Council amended its moratorium to limit its scope. On March 9, the council resumed its public hearing on the vacation rental moratorium adopted on Jan. 12. It’s set to expire mid-July if it is not renewed at that time.