San Juan County has issued permits for 1,002 vacation rentals, according to Erika Shook — 430 are active; 202 inactive; and the remaining are non-compliant. As of Jan. 13, the county has paused permit approval and has enacted a six-month moratorium. On Feb. 23, the San Juan County Council held a public hearing regarding that moratorium.
“I want to be clear, [the moratorium] does not impact the operations of any existing vacation rental permits that are out there,” San Juan County Community Development Director Shook said. “It only limits our ability to accept new permit applications.”
For more than two hours, people gave testimony regarding how the moratorium has affected them — from being ecstatic of its enactment to being devastated by the restrictions.
“This allows us as a community to have the time we need to balance this economic engine with the impacts to our local ecosystems and to the rural character of our island communities,” Friends of the San Juans Executive Director Brian Lyles said. “As a community, it is critically important that we proceed on this with care and the moratorium allows us to do that.”
For San Juan Islanders Michelle and Miguel Seidelman, the moratorium may cause them to lose their dream home they closed on in December 2020. The couple had planned to pay for their purchase by renting it out to vacationers until they were able to retire. Michelle Seidelman said they have put tens of thousands of dollars into rehabilitating the property to meet the county’s vacation rental compliance expectations.
“Miguel and I are extremely hurt and take offense to being treated as though we are not part of the island,” Michelle Seidelman said. “It seems very elitist to us that if you cannot afford to live here full-time or leave your house vacant 70% of the time then you just cannot own a property here at all. How is this legal, or ethical, to arbitrarily vote for a moratorium without having community hearings and a due process? We are facing financial ruin because of this decision.”
The moratorium came a year and a half after a group of concerned islanders formed the Orcas Island Vacation Rental Working Group in July 2019 to lobby for a reevaluation of the regulations adopted by San Juan County in 2018.
“What it did not address was the location and saturation of vacation rentals in the county,” Shook said at the Feb. 23 hearing. “And it didn’t answer the question of how many vacation rentals is too many?”
Suggestions from the group include wanting to “reduce the erosion” of long-term rentals; protect the islands’ rural character; and focus on maintaining the quality of life in neighborhoods and in the islands as a whole.
Proponents of the moratorium cite inadequate septic systems; limited water availability; noise; safety; lack of affordable housing for long-term renters; natural environment degradation; rural community destruction and more as reasons to restrict vacation rental permits.
The county is pouring over more than 200 comments made by islanders regarding the moratorium, and those made during the public comment portion of the hearing. The county council chose to continue the meeting until 9:15 a.m. on March 9 to resume the discussion.
To view the public’s comments and additional data from the county regarding vacation rentals and the moratorium, visit https://www.sanjuanco.com/1770/Vacation-Rental-Moratorium.
“It is important for people to realize that the input of your neighbors is an important thing to consider and to be respected,” Cindy Wolf, the council member from Orcas said.