GEARHART — Comments are lighting up Facebook. Political signs are being stolen. Clatsop County commissioners are holding their breath until after the election to see how the vote will impact future vacation rental policies.
Even Oregon Public Broadcasting has started to report on the election and how it fits with similar policy debates around the country.
Campaign leaders for and against Gearhart’s Measure 4-188 — which would repeal short-term rental rules put in place last fall — have noted a level of hostility they’ve never seen before.
But for Bill Berg, the town’s historian and vocal “no” voter, this debate is as old as the town itself.
“It’s the same campaign that’s been going on since 1918,” Berg said. “It’s about the integrity of community. What does that look like?”
How it started
Gearhart residents are no strangers to political controversy.
In the 1970s, the town had a contentious debate about whether a sewer system should be installed in Gearhart. In 2003, residents fought to keep part of the Gearhart Golf Links course from getting rezoned for condominiums. In 2015, some voters tried to recall Dianne Widdop as mayor.
But there is something about the latest measure that is elevating tensions and campaign tactics.
Complaints that out-of-town property managers were unable to promptly reply to public safety concerns led to an increased call for regulation, particularly a requirement for 24-hour owner contact information.
The city crafted rules detailing occupancy limits, parking rules, property management contact information and capped registration to existing short-term rental properties.
But property owners David Townsend, Joy Sigler, Brian Sigler and Sarah Nebeker interpreted these rules as the city’s way of phasing out short-term rentals altogether, and filed a challenge in March seeking a ballot initiative that would repeal and replace the ordinance.
Social media has been a major component in this election, with the opposition producing video testimony of residents and debates happening in the comment sections of community Facebook pages.
On the community page “A Million Friends of Gearhart,” political posts have erupted into debates about community character and property rights.
“The proponents of yes on 4-188 are a well-financed group of non-resident investors who want to destroy the residential quality of Gearhart and then (turn) it into their own totally resort commercial community,” Widdop, the former mayor, posted.
“We do not make a profit on our rental home,” short-term rental property owner Jim Whittemore said. “I need about 120 rental nights to break even. Last year we had about 93 nights and this year we will be below 90. You do the math. Nobody is trying to ‘buy’ anything. We just want our property rights restored. It is that simple.”
Like Widdop, many voting “no” have taken issue with the number of out-of-state investors financing the proponents.
Proponents have $25,000 in donations, many from outside the area, compared to the $12,000 opponents have raised so far, according to reports available from the Oregon Secretary of State.
Both campaigns have spent roughly between $10,000 and $11,000 on campaign materials, according to the secretary of state’s website.
Election a crossroads
“No” voters started the Facebook page “Keep Gearhart Residential” — out of necessity, they say.
“We have little money, few resources, but big community,” said Lisa Cerveny, a part-time resident who runs the page. “We’re making the most of what we have.”
This is the first time Cerveny has participated in a political campaign in Gearhart. She decided to get involved after she saw this election as a crossroads for a town she’s lived in for 20 years.
“We bought here because of the unique quality that Cannon Beach and Seaside don’t have,” Cerveny said. “I don’t want to see this town be replaced with a resort mentality.”
This election is more than about rentals, she said. “The town is choosing to exist one way or the other.”
Developing the page, which now has almost 200 followers, was a grassroots effort, Cerveny said. It started as a venue to share information about the city’s ordinance, but as it gained traction, a local videographer recorded, edited and circulated residents talking about why they love Gearhart — and why they oppose the measure.
Berg, who has lived in Gearhart since the 1970s, was one of the residents featured. For him, voting to keep the city’s ordinance intact is a question of preserving a diverse community.
“Rich and poor, whether you have an income in four figures like me, or seven figures, we’re all a part of the community when the summer season comes. To have us turn into a Seaside, where every permanent resident is surrounded by virtual motels, you tend to take that personally,” Berg said. “We don’t want the housing stock to be converted (to short-term rentals). You lose friends that way.”
Cerveny said while their campaign has had success with traditional techniques, social media has been integral to getting their message out.
“The videos that have been produced, which are getting thousands of hits, are proving to be very effective in communicating to a broader audience,” Cerveny said. “We’re finding the format wonderfully flexible … And it appears to be successful in reaching more and more people as the weeks go on.”
‘It just doesn’t seem American’
Those in favor of the measure, however, remain skeptical of social media’s impact in this election.
“In Gearhart, 90 percent of voters are 50 or older. Forty-nine percent of voters are 65 or older,” said Townsend, a major voice of Gearhart Citizens for Fair and Reasonable Government. “Those ain’t social media people.”
Proponents of the measure have a website called Gearhart For All, Yes on 4-188 campaign manager Larry Taylor said, where information about the measure is listed alongside names of those who support it. A Facebook page has existed since May, but as of Monday only had 20 followers.
Instead, Townsend, who has worked on 185 campaigns nationally, has been focusing on direct mail.
To him, the battleground of the debate is happening on front lawns, neighbor to neighbor, and in “letters to the editor.”
“If (the measure) fails, it’s not going to be because of the vehicle in which the information traveled. It will be the fact (the opposition) scared people,” Townsend said. “The great irony of all this, we’re not affected by this. We have our permit. We have off-street parking. There’s nothing in it for us at all. But thinking of people like Sarah Nebeker, who has lived and given so much to the community, thinking that they can’t keep their house to use as a rental — it just doesn’t seem American.”
With the election a week away, both sides are still fighting to educate voters. But the idea of an undecided voter in Gearhart on this issue is unlikely, Taylor said.
“It’s on the high end of emotionalism. You can see it in the Facebook posts,” Taylor said. “People are formed into two camps, and there’s not a lot of discussion happening.” For Jeanne Mark, a longtime resident and vocal opponent of the measure, that emotionalism comes from how universal the issue has become.
“This is not just our little community — it’s a world issue,” Mark said. “But either way, we all have to be neighbors after this is over.”