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Won't You Be My Neighbor? 

City weighs new approach to vacation rentals

click to enlarge permitgraph.jpg

Stephen Junkins

Vacation rentals dominated last week's Bend City Council meeting, with comments from community members and discussion from city councilors spanning hours over the course of the work session and meeting. 

During the work session, City staff presented three options to address growing concerns over the number of vacation rentals in residential zones, 41 percent of which are in Bend's River West neighborhood, according to resident estimates. Those options included creating an annual license renewal process through which vacation rental owners would be required to re-apply each year, and the City could revoke licenses if owners don't meet requirements. The other two were land use processes, expected to take 4-6 months to take effect, and included a temporary suspension on the issuance of vacation rental permits and a cap on the total number or density of the properties.

The bulk of the extensive testimony came from residents concerned about the encroachment of vacation rentals, which they say are replacing long-term neighbors with an ever-changing cast of visitors.

"We don't actually have a neighbor left," Federal Street resident Orion Junkins said at the meeting. The home where he lives with his parents has vacation rentals on three sides. "We don't have anyone we can borrow milk from."

Others said their children are losing playmates and that neighborhood conflicts regarding noise, parking and other nuisances can no longer be resolved with a friendly conversation because they can't develop a neighborly rapport when the people next door change every few days.

Hillside Inn owner Annie Goldner shared concerns about the disparate regulation of vacation rentals versus bed and breakfast establishments such as her own. She said the simpler permit process and lower fee for vacation rentals has caused their numbers to surge, while bed and breakfasts have stagnated. While she is bound by density restrictions and required to live on the property, vacation rentals may line a street and be owned by out-of-towners. Goldner estimates, based on her research, that just 19 percent of the vacation rentals in Bend are owner occupied.

"The horse, I know, is out of the barn," she said. "This is the moment to stop the issuance of vacation rental permits."

Goldner's sentiment was shared by many of the residents who filled the City Council chambers and spilled into the hallway Wednesday night. But while residents urged councilors to take prompt action and issue a temporary suspension on new vacation rental permits, Oregon's strict land use regulations may mean waiting longer than they'd like.

Councilor Doug Knight, in an attempt to bring about swifter change, proposed changing the vacation rental permitting process from a type 1 "permitted use"—widely referred to as a "rubber stamp" permit—to a type 2 "conditional use" permit, which requires the applicant to meet a host of conditions, including sending out a Measure 56 notice, getting community feedback and risking denial.

The framework for such a move appears to already exist within the City's code. In one section of the code, it says that "vacation rentals"—like bed and breakfasts—require a type 2 permit. Elsewhere, it says that "vacation rental homes" need only a type 1 permit. While "vacation rental" is not defined in the code, "vacation rental homes" are considered any residence rented out for periods of 20 days or fewer.

Councilor Knight's suggestion generated significant debate. While most councilors agreed that a speedy resolution was needed, none were ready to sign on to any particular approach and many said they wanted to hear more from vacation rental owners and managers before initiating changes that would affect their businesses.

"We kind of gave some favorability toward one side of the issue," Councilor Scott Ramsay said. "I'm not ready to make a motion."

While a handful of vacation rental owners and managers shared their thoughts, public testimony was dominated by residents in favor of halting and/or capping vacation rental permits. Vacation rental owner and manager Cara Townsend said she supports a rigorous permitting process, but wants people to know that some owners are also locals invested in their communities.

"I want to put a face to the vacation rental manager," Townsend said, joking that she is "the trifecta of evil" because she lives in California part time and owns and manages rental properties. "In terms of tightening up a permitting process, people invested in the process don't have a problem with that. I think there is room for discussion from all."

Other vacation rental owners emphasized that they follow the rules and regulations, and a few added that they offer 24/7 hotlines for neighbors to call with complaints about renters. Many also supported limiting vacation rental density in residential neighborhoods, while arguing that vacation rentals benefit the community by revitalizing run down properties and encouraging spending at local businesses.

"What's most logical in the long term is some kind of neighborhood caps or limits," said Councilor Victor Chudowsky, a River West neighborhood resident. "Once a certain concentration is reached, things really change.... The question is, what to do in the meantime?"

City Council ultimately decided to take up the issue again at its October 1 meeting after doing some additional research into legal options and possible timelines.

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