GEARHART — Changes in vacation rental rules in Gearhart could make long-term options more available. Vacationers and second-home owners are the name of the game in the city’s housing equation. Fifty-eight percent of Gearhart’s homes are vacant seasonally or part time, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Only 10.8 percent of Gearhart’s homes are available for year-round rental, and finding one at any price is a challenge for new arrivals.

What makes “Gearhart, Gearhart” is a theme for the city, and people of all viewpoints see a need for its preservation. “Gearhart is one of the most desirable places to live,” mayoral candidate Bob Shortman said. “Even the elk have moved in.”

He said his goal is to keep Gearhart’s small-town feel while managing growth.

Matt Brown, also a candidate for mayor, said if a city is not always planning, “outside influences are going to plan the city for you.”

“You constantly have to follow your comprehensive plan, your vision for Gearhart,” Brown said. “I’ve been here since I was born in 1975. It was a residential community because folks had a vision in the comprehensive plan to make a sustainable residential community.”

Defining that vision is a key aspect of housing in a city where the term “affordable housing” is an oxymoron — Zillow puts the median home price at $364,700.

Windermere Real Estate lists properties in Gearhart, with condos starting at about $200,000. A brand-new 2,500-square-foot home on Diamond Lane is listed for $549,000. At the top of the market, homeowners are seeking $3.3 million for a 6,500-square-foot, seven-bedroom, five-bath beachfront home. A South Ocean Avenue four-bedroom, three-bath home in the desirable Gin Ridge community is available for about $2.5 million.

Gearhart has few rentals and no subsidized housing.

“I don’t have anything on the market right now,” Bonnie Belden-Doney, the operations director of North Coast Rentals, said. “Everything is rented.”

On the average, she said, she gets five or six calls a day from people around the country looking for long-term rentals.

Recent prices for one-year rentals in Gearhart range from a one-bedroom cottage on B Street for $975 per month to $3,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bath condominium.

For those able to buy, there are plenty of opportunities, according to Windermere Realtor Melissa Eddy. “When people are coming to Gearhart and Seaside full time, they are prepared to purchase a home at buy and they recognize that they will pay,” Eddy said.

For property owners seeking to build, the city charges $1,150 for a water connection, $35 for a grading permit, and a building permit based on the state’s permit fee program, according to City Administrator Chad Sweet.

Unlike Seaside and other neighboring communities, Gearhart has no system development charges for new projects. These charges, paid by builders, are designed to cover city services for water, roads and other infrastructure, and are considered an impediment by some developers.

But growth is hard-fought and every new development is met with a lengthy review. The city’s vulnerability in the tsunami zone is a factor in where housing may be located. Parts of the city are rated the “highest level” of hazard zone, according to the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.

Available infrastructure also limits Gearhart’s housing growth — energy, water lines and streets.

If a sewer system is required, Gearhart residents would be faced with a big decision as to how to foot the bill, Councilor Dan Jesse said. Developers should consider undeveloped land east of U.S. Highway 101, he said, which is potentially safer and offers opportunities for new construction.

Gearhart used to be “low-key, kind of under the radar,” Planning Commissioner Terry Graff said.

Visitors came for the Hood to Coast relay, the Seaside beach volleyball tournament and holidays, “but it always worked, people came back every year and there weren’t any problems,” he said.

That has changed with the advent of easy rentals on the internet, he and others have said. These discussions resulted in regulation of short-term rental properties, seeking registration, inspection and 24-7 emergency contact among other provisions.

According to an April city staff report, there are 1,480 permanent residents in the city limits. Of the city’s 1,450 housing units, more than half are for seasonal use or rental. The new rules hark back to the goals of the 1994 master plan “to ensure Gearhart retains its residential community character.”

Cliff Johnson, the co-founder and chief development officer of Vacasa, which represents or manages a number of Gearhart properties, said short-term rentals allow homeowners to keep their properties in the family without being forced to sell.

“The common thing is I hear they don’t want new development,” he said earlier this year. “One way is to make more lodging available through vacation homes.”

Vacasa is booking guests in homes that would otherwise remain empty, generating public revenue through lodging taxes and boosting traffic in local stores and restaurants, he said.

Right now the balance is shifting as residents wait for the ink to dry on the ordinance and see whether opponents challenge the rules.

“Through attrition we can get that number to start leveling off and going back down,” said Brown, who supports the new rules. “Maybe we can get more affordable housing for families, either long-term housing or otherwise.”

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