STRs can operate in Port Angeles this summer

Letters sent, but no further action taken

PORT ANGELES — With an amended code expected in a matter of weeks, the Port Angeles City Council chose not to take action on any potential enforcement of short-term rentals that are out of compliance, essentially allowing the business owners to operate this summer.

But a new ordinance, to be introduced next month and potentially approved in March, could set the stage for enforcement as early as Nov. 1.

The ordinance likely will make its first appearance at the city planning commission on Wednesday, when the city’s short-term rentals community survey results will be presented, before it moves to the council in February, Deputy City Manager Calvin W. Goings said.

“We are creating a situation where current users can list for the summer, and we’ll know in March what the following summer looks like,” Mayor Kate Dexter said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Following public comment, much of which supported short-term rentals (STRs) throughout the city, council members debated whether or not they should find a way to suspend enforcement of those deemed to be out of compliance.

In a memo sent to the council, City Attorney William Bloor said the city’s only action taken to date has been to accept complaints from citizens about the possible operation of STRs that violate city code.

In response, the city has sent cease-and-desist letters to those business owners who are allegedly operating out of compliance, but no other action has been taken.

“There has been no investigation to determine whether probable cause exists to believe any operation that was subject to a complaint violates City codes; no Notices of Violation have been prepared; and for several diverse reasons, no Notices are contemplated at this time,” Bloor wrote in the memo.

He also advised the city couldn’t simply suspend enforcement. Instead, council members would have to repeal, amend or suspend the ordinance.

Council member Brendan Meyer made a motion to add all STRs to the list of permitted uses, but the motion died for lack of a second.

“Last year sometime, we had a work session about what to do with short-term rentals and everybody was able to give their opinions and talk about the possible unintended consequences,” Meyer said. “We decided to move forward with the moratorium and sort of overturned the apple cart with no information.

“At the time, I thought that was wrong,” he said. “I knew the people who were affected by it would definitely come out to air their grievances about it.”

Meyer cited 164 non-compliant STRs and said they generate about $200,000 per year in lodging tax.

“I feel like we let a lot of people down and sort of made a mountain out of a molehill when you consider it’s 2 percent of our housing stock,” he said.

Council member LaTrisha Suggs said she was in favor of suspending the ordinance that would include enforcement.

“I’m not saying it’s OK that you’re non-conforming, because there are codes in place, but our code enforcement should be focusing on things that are a higher priority associated with life, environmental health and safety, and we are working towards developing short-term rental (policy),” she said.

The lack of enforcement would end when a new policy is in place, Suggs said.

Council member Amy Miller disagreed.

“I feel strongly we should be enforcing our code at least until we complete the process,” she said.

However, council members chose not to take formal action because the process would take about the same amount of time as the expected revised code in March.

“We want to make sure this is done slow and steady and right,” Goings said. “It’s been a lot of energy the last six months, so we want to make sure the next phase is done in a very thoughtful manner.”

A process to submit applications through an online portal called GovOS could be live as early as July 1, and enforcement actions on any new policy likely wouldn’t start until at least Nov. 1, he said.

The council is attempting to balance business owners’ property rights and the city’s tourism industry with the area’s lack of housing.

Public comments were largely supportive of STRs.

“It would be a real good thing to calm the waters somehow in whatever way is appropriate, to hold back on enforcement until we can figure this out in a good way for everybody,” said Jim McEntire, who said he was speaking on behalf of the Port Angeles Business Association.

Anthony Sanders, the president of PABA, submitted a letter to the council to ask for reasonable fees, the suspension of enforcement for existing STRs and to wait for a consultant to answer key questions.

“Does the STR market materially reduce so-called ‘middle housing stock’? In other words, is there a problem and what are its dimensions?” the letter stated. “Would regulation solve whatever housing program that currently exists and on into the future?”

Dexter said she was hesitant to take action against a business owner who may end up being compliant under a new code.

“We’re in this situation now where we as a city, and for creating a good business climate, should set a date certain for when new policy goes into effect,” council member Lindsay Schromen-Wawrin said. “I’m more worried right now about sending mixed messages by passing an ordinance on a matter and then immediately turning around passing another ordinance on the same matter.

“We’re in the process of changing the law, so let’s finish that process,” he said.

________

Managing editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-417-3531 or by email at brian.mclean@peninsuladailynews.com.

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