By Marcy Stamper
People who want to rent their homes to tourists are facing stricter county regulations and, at the same time, more competition from a glut of rentals — both legal and illegal — through online sites websites like Airbnb.
Nightly rentals have always had to obtain water and safety permits from Okanogan County Public Health. But when property owners sought to renew those permits at the end of last year, they were required for the first time to get a signature from the county either the Planning or Building department certifying that their home was in a zone that allows nightly rentals.
In the Methow Valley School District, those zones are very restricted; nightly rentals are allowed only in planned developments (PDs), which have special requirements that dictate larger lot sizes and open space.
In the past, it was left to the property owner to take the initiative to know what regulations applied and seek Planning approval; Public Health had no authority to regulate those permits, said Okanogan County Environmental Health Specialist Mike Harr.
The stricter rules apply only to people renting a house for 30 days or less. Homeowners are permitted to do longer-term rentals without the health or planning sign-off.
Homeowners who had been renting to tourists for years with approval from Public Health — and who already had bookings for the summer tourist season — were taken aback to find they might no longer be able to rent legally, said Kathleen Jardin, co-owner of Central Reservations.
The Mazama Country Inn, which handles reservations for nightly rentals, has always required its homeowner clients to get permits from Planning and Public Health. “But people were confused, because the county didn’t necessarily educate them,” said Bill Pope, co-owner of the inn.
Since the renewals went out, Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston has been trying to explain the new permitting process. But that process is far from streamlined. “I don’t even have a list of all the nightly rentals in the county,” he said.
Some people who weren’t in a proper zone for nightly rentals have now switched to B&Bs, which are permitted in more zones but require the property owner to be on site, said Lauren Davidson, a planner for Okanogan County.
Hard to enforce
The problem with nightly rentals is that not all county departments have been enforcing regulations, said Dave Schulz, a former Okanogan County commissioner who’s served on the county’s planning commission for almost 50 years.
Some people buy second homes in the Methow and plan to rent them overnight to tourists when they aren’t using them, said Schulz. “They don’t pay [lodging] tax and are making good money without being in compliance,” he said.
The county commissioners directed Public Health to coordinate the permit applications because it was the only department that had been pursuing enforcements, said Dave Hilton, the county’s environmental health director. But “it’s not up to us to chase them down on the zoning,” he said. “Our concern was water and facilities.”
Although it no longer has adequate staff to do regular enforcement, Public Health will investigate if it receives a complaint, said Harr.
After the new round of applications went out, Hilton heard from several people concerned about the permitting change. “I can see both sides of the argument,” he said. For neighbors, having a rotating stream of strangers next door is a concern; on the other hand, some homeowners believe it’s their right to rent their property if they wish, he said.
Planning regularly gets complaints about properties people have found through Airbnb. “We have a hell of a time just trying to find out where they are,” said Huston. Listings often don’t include names or exact addresses, so it can be difficult to identify places rented through the online site.
While some properties rented through Airbnb are legal and permitted, some are not.
Various county departments have talked about ways of trying to police unpermitted rentals, said Davidson. County Commissioner Andy Hover suggested comparing photos on Airbnb with those in the county assessor’s files, she said.
Jardin regularly fields calls from people considering buying a vacation property in the Methow who hope to rent it out. “The first thing I do is say, ‘Be sure you’re buying something that’s legal to rent,’” she said.
“It’s a hot, debatable subject,” said Schulz. “People think they can do whatever they want with their house. But neighbors wonder about all the cars coming and going overnight.”
Nightly rentals vs. year-round housing
As president of the board of the Methow Housing Trust, Pope brings another perspective to the debate. The trust was formed earlier this year to create affordable housing in the valley.
If nightly rentals are allowed in any zone, it could have a big impact on affordable, long-term rentals, said Pope. “In the end, that’s what convinced the commissioners to maintain the status quo” and keep the PD requirement intact, he said.
”There’s also the effect on residential neighborhoods — they get hollowed out if they’re rented to other people for a short time,” said Pope.
Jardin is concerned about the potential impact of unregulated nightly rentals on the valley’s housing market, because people can make so much more money renting to tourists. Nightly rentals in the Methow can bring in $110 to $180 per night, with some high-end homes charging $300 or more.
Shutting down rentals?
Added confusion comes from a clause in the zoning code the county commissioners adopted last year that requires all nightly rentals in the Methow Valley that are not in planned developments to shut down as of Jan. 1, 2021.
While the majority of nightly rentals in the Methow are in PDs, about two dozen are considered “legally pre-existing” — that is, they had already been operating when the county first required nightly rentals to be within PDs in the mid-1990s.
Half of the grandfathered nightly rentals are in that group. The rest were allowed to continue in the mid-2000s due to an error in the zoning code. Although the code was subsequently corrected, property owners who’d already set up nightly rentals were allowed to continue, said Pope.
The commissioners had considered replacing the PD requirement for nightly rentals in the Methow Valley with conditional-use permits. The shut-down clause was proposed to give people time to get those permits, and Pope believes it was mistakenly left in the code even after the commissioners decided to continue PD zoning.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the valley,” said Hover. “No one thinks the intent was to amortize legally pre-existing rentals.”
For all the challenges, Jardin of Central Reservations, supports the county’s requirement for a sign-off from both Planning and Public Health. “The nightly rental business would be ginormous if the regulations weren’t what they are,” she said.
“I think our county and our lifestyle will be better for it,” she said. “I’d rather have real neighbors,” she said.
The planning commission will meet to consider zoning regulations again, but no date has been set, said Schulz.