Can vacation rentals be good neighbors? | Guest column

By Yonatan Aldort

Vacation Rental Work Group

As the dust settles around the San Juan County Council’s decision to extend a limited moratorium on new vacation rental permits, we have a moment to catch our breath and reflect on what brought us to this point.

In 2019, I was a voting member of the Eastsound Planning and Review Committee. In May of that year, I announced that I would be stepping down from EPRC in order to address the negative impacts of unlimited vacation rental proliferation. I then made a motion, which passed unanimously, to ask the county council to impose the moratorium we are now discussing.

It took 19 months for the county council to act on that recommendation. In the meantime, the Deer Harbor Plan Review Committee and the San Juan County Planning Commission sent similar pro-moratorium measures to the council, and in November 2021, a loud voice emanated from San Juan County voters. “It’s time,” the collective voices have said. “It’s time to grant relief.”

While serving on the EPRC, I saw our quality of life deteriorate as vacation rental properties sprang up first on one, then two, then three sides of people’s homes. The sheer pace of change had become fearsome. Evictions of long-term renters were common as those houses were converted to short-term rentals. I formed the Vacation Rental Working Group to channel the chorus of community voices into a pathway for affirmative change.

Frankly, we underestimated the growing dysphoria. As neighborhoods morphed into centers of tourism, we heard stories of bizarre and sad abuses: Noise, traffic, cars parked on private property, late-night parties, trespass, property damage and more.

We recall a local retail clerk who came home one night to find a party of six from the next-door AirBnB enjoying a bottle of wine on his private deck. “We liked your view better,” they said, pouring another glass.

As a woman from Rosario passed the three-bedroom vacation rental on her road, she noticed the newly arrived occupants had taken their drinks out front to explore the property — every one of them stark naked.

What do you do with that? No other business enterprise integrates itself, uninvited, with such proximal imposition into our private lives. They tiptoe in looking like familiar residences, offering few clues to their commercial pedigree, and yet they hold undeniable power to transform a community.

By no means are the abuses universal, but they are common enough to tarnish the image of responsible vacation rental hosts, and that pattern has left scars that fester to this day.

Here is what keeps me up at night. San Juan County’s mouse-click tourist population is quickly shifting into over-tourism which in turn is overwhelming our forested island home and the sense of community we all hold dear. We cannot let that happen.

Digital-age tourism deserves a digital-age response. After studying the living history of over 70 tourist-focused communities and the regulations they crafted to restore lost values, we modeled our own ideas to safeguard our county, to support our cherished rural lifestyle, and to set the legitimate vacation rental entrepreneurs here on a more sustainable path to success.

We have placed our findings in the hands of the county council. They must act swiftly and with precision if they are to leverage the scaled-back January moratorium in support of the following:

• Establishment of a meaningful cap on the total number of vacation rental properties in operation, set for the county and by island.

• Definition of the acceptable density of vacation rentals in neighborhoods.

• Creation of an operating license, analogous to a standard business license.

• An upgrade to consistent and equitable enforcement.

If you care about the ecological health of these islands and the soul of our community, I encourage you to speak up and stay involved. We have much to lose.