Discussion among Clatsop County commissioners about a potential vacation rental ordinance boils down to two factors: over-regulation versus the need for safety inspections, and a November ballot measure in Gearhart that would repeal and replace the city’s new short-term rental rules.
Commissioners indefinitely postponed a vote on possible vacation rental regulations at a public hearing in September. The ordinance would require property owners to apply for five-year, renewable permits based on safety inspections for an unlimited number of short-term rental properties.
Requirements for owners to comply with quiet hours, provide covered garbage containers, possess at least one fire extinguisher and offer at least one off-street parking spot are some of the mandates included in the ordinance. Only three people per sleeping area plus two more would be allowed to occupy a residence.
County staff estimates the ordinance would impact at least 173 property owners in unincorporated areas who rent out homes for up to 30 days, nearly double the 2010 estimate for vacation rentals. The state does not regulate short-term rentals to ensure renters’ health and safety as it does with hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts.
Commissioners held a work session Wednesday with County Manager Cameron Moore and County Counsel Heather Reynolds.
Commissioner Kathleen Sullivan handed out a memo with a list of items she would like included in the ordinance. Those items include septic and sewage requirements that match those in place in Gearhart, property inspection at least every three years — as opposed to the five-year requirement written in the most recent draft of the ordinance — and a distinction between types of short-term rentals.
“This ordinance is actually a great opportunity for us,” Sullivan said. “Now we’re moving toward digitizing our information on this, but also looking at the septic systems.”
Commissioner Sarah Nebeker was leery of including additional regulations. Nebeker, a Gearhart resident, has been a vocal critic of the city’s new regulations that will be up for a vote in November.
The ballot measure would repeal the regulations, require home inspections and place responsibility on owners to self-report issues. Nebeker and other supporters say the new regulations are too harsh and restrict property rights.
The commissioner said Wednesday that she supports regulations at the county level, but does not want them to be as “draconian” as those in Gearhart.
“If we put all the short-term rentals into one pocket and we make the restrictions onerous on everyone, I’m not supportive,” Nebeker said.
Some commissioners also raised concerns about requiring inspections at least every three years, citing county staff time issues and the fact that inspections would cost roughly $200. But Sullivan maintained the ordinance would be too ineffective if regular inspections are not conducted.
“I don’t think a $200 inspection every few years is onerous,” Sullivan said.
Commissioner Lianne Thompson agreed that septic inspections should be a priority and that a more efficient system for reporting issues must be created. She lives in Arch Cape, which already has established regulations, but the neighborhood she lives in opted out of them.
One short-term rental in her neighborhood is constantly overcrowded and she can smell the sewage from afar, she said. Other residents have told her that their complaints have not been adequately addressed by the county.
“This is a growing trend, in my experience, because I’ve tracked it,” Thompson said.
Scott Lee, the board’s chairman, and Moore said the ordinance is a necessary starting point and that more regulations could be added over time. Moore added that the county’s potential regulations are much less restrictive than those in place in Gearhart.
“That’s not a bad way to start in terms of policy,” Moore said. “We can always tighten it up as we go.”
Reynolds, the ordinance’s author, will continue revising the document with input from commissioners. They agreed to bring the issue forward again after the outcome of the Gearhart ballot measure is determined.
County staff has discussed the issue since the summer of 2016, shortly after they first suspected that a home near Cullaby Lake caught fire due to unsafe conditions and lack of permits. They since have documented multiple complaints from renters. Commissioners were handed a draft of the ordinance in June, and Wednesday’s work session was the third that commissioners have held about the topic this year.
All commissioners agreed Wednesday that vacation rentals — despite concerns about their effects on long-term housing and the culture of those who reside in the county full time— have become an inevitable factor in the county’s future.
“The Pandora’s box is open, and you’re not going to shut it,” Sullivan said. “The culture is changing.”