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Our view: Gearhart voted to preserve small-town character

The decision tells us something about preferences for the entire North Coast

Published on November 9, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on November 9, 2017 7:14AM

By a more than 3-1 margin Tuesday, Gearhart emphatically voted in favor of a philosophy of preserving an essentially small-town residential character.

The decision tells us something about preferences for the entire North Coast in the years ahead, and sketches out a path for other seashore towns that want to accommodate some vacation rentals without making them a dominant economic theme.

Vacation rentals are an underreported battlefront in the economic revolution set off by the internet, and the opportunities it provides to bypass traditional methods to market goods and services directly to potential buyers. Unregulated, such rentals turn resort towns and some city cores into sprawling hotel or apartment complexes. Allowed to go too far, these rentals denude towns of contributing full-time citizens and replace them with short-term tenants with no real stake in the well-being of the place.

These concerns certainly underpinned the outcome in Gearhart. It is an upscale beach town, one with deep and genteel roots, a place all residents cherish. Those who favored rolling back the limits on vacation rentals in some cases simply wanted to spread the cost of an expensive home among weekenders. But those who favored keeping the restrictions recognized the costs to the community of having too many amateur innkeepers attempting to remotely operate modern-day boarding houses.

Aside from the deeper dilemma of preserving the charms of a coastal town, worries justifiably revolved around issues like inappropriate parking, partying, trash and wear-and-tear on municipal services and infrastructure. A desire to wring more value from a beach house by renting it through Airbnb and other websites is understandable, but a person’s property rights do not extend to degrading an entire town.

What lessons does the Gearhart decision hold for other towns on the Pacific Northwest coast? Perhaps first and foremost, that these issues are not going away. Each community must prepare to make its own defenses and compromises.

This appealing region will inevitably fill up due to the popularity of living on the coast in a growing nation. But on top of that, disasters like the California wildfires are turning more eyes this way. As the Southwest U.S. turns more arid and hot, moist and cool start to sound pretty good — both to vacationers and potential new residents. Rapid housing price escalation in nearby cities will lead some to cash out and seek peace here.

Coastal towns that don’t plan for growth pressures can find themselves transformed beyond recognition, and not always in good ways.

Beyond the need for proactive municipal planning, Gearhart demonstrates the fundamental importance of an active citizenry that knows what it wants. In Gearhart’s case, current town leadership largely shared citizens’ views. This is not always the case. Ask questions of city council and mayoral candidates. Attend council meetings. Pay attention to the news. Don’t be blindsided by incremental decisions that add up to wholesale changes in the places we live.

Now that the vote is over, Gearhart elected officials need to listen to the concerns raised by supporters of the ballot measure, and amend the rules where changes make sense. The officials have already expressed a willingness to do that. It’s time to come together and work out the differences in the City Council chambers, not via ballot initiative.


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