Citizens sound off on short-term vacation rental issue

The Ocean Shores Planning Commission continues to examine how the city is affected by the demand and market for short-term vacation rentals and consider if the city should allow more residential property owners to offer their homes for nightly or weekly use.

The commission met March 27 to hear residents and business owners on both sides of the debate, with some against any change in city laws, while others advocated for expanded use in certain areas and better enforcement of current regulations and codes.

One of those against changing the nightly rental policy in the R1 single-family residential zone, Lillian Broadbent, started the discussion by questioning if Planning Commission Chair Jeff Daniel should recuse himself because he sells real estate for John L. Scott.

“I can’t think of anything in our town that more directly impacts real estate than nightly rentals,” Broadbent said. “The real estate agents and brokers are the chief beneficiaries of nightly rentals.”

She said she would be in favor of the city reviewing the policy over time: “The first thing you have to look at is there a need? Is there a market? Are the current nightly rentals full up?”

Daniel noted the Planning Commission was tasked by Mayor Crystal Dingler with studying the issue of short-term rentals, and ultimately to make a recommendation to the city because “there are hundreds of short-term vacation rentals happening in Ocean Shores in the R1 zone right now.”

All of those are operating in violation of the city’s municipal code, Daniel said. “The issue is that they already are here. What about the possibility of looking at them and exploring taxation, bringing them up to code and making them legal?”

“We don’t have a proposal. We don’t have a position. We are just exploring this matter,” Daniel said.

Resident Marlene Penry said she was concerned about nightly rentals in neighborhoods: “Absolutely not in residential communities. Don’t even think about it. I have no problem with the existing commercial districts and the nightly rentals that are out there and doing their thing.”

She said any nightly rental business at the larger condos would require 24-hour property management. “This is extremely hard to undo. … If you let this go, we are stuck with it.”

Sonja Moss, who owns and operates Moss Landing Cabins with her husband Tom near Damon Point, told the commission that they are normally booked up from July and August. “The rest of the year? Not so much, and I think we are pretty typical, so I don’t think there is a huge shortage. And to allow any house in town to do what we had to pay extra for to meet all these codes, that’s not very business-friendly.”

Moss suggested there will have to be “changes to these houses to bring them up to code. There are safety issues. There are fire issues. There are going to be parking issues, nuisance issues. It will change the whole flavor of the town.”

Resident Richad Wills said he was “adamantly against” nightly rentals in residential areas. For those now violating the law, “the solution is not to change the law. The solution is to enforce the law,” he said.

Jim Collins, who owns and operates the Collins Inn on Marine View Drive, offered the perspective of “how well things are doing in overnight rentals.”

“The Collins Inn is very successful and has been successful for 13 years thanks to this town and the way that this town has continued to keep itself up,” Collins said. He described his customers as “young families and young couples” who pay up to $350 a night.

“The thing I struggle with the most is that I don’t have a level playing field because there are 150-200 Airbnbs out there, including up the street from us,” Collins said, adding those rentals are not paying any local or state taxes or complying with proper fire and safety regulations.

“I think we need to look at the problem, make sure we understand the problem and then fix it,” Collins said. “Let’s quit ignoring ordinance, laws. Let’s figure out how to make this town more successful.”

Jim Donahoe said his family moved to the area in 1962 and that he was speaking as a resident and citizen, although he noted he also was a broker with Windermere Real Estate.

“Do we need overnight rentals? In my personal opinion, the answer is yes,” he said, pointing to the post-recession era when the city of Ocean Shores faced a budget and financial crises that led to layoffs and reductions in services. The city needs to expand its tax base to maintain the services the residents need, according to Donahoe.

He referred to an earlier presentation he made to the City Council estimating expanded nightly rental business could bring in $600,000 a year. “We could seriously generate income that the city doesn’t have.”

Thorn Ward, another longtime resident and real estate broker at John L. Scott, said he owns two overnight rentals near the Collins Inn. The problems he experiences, he said, are not what people fear or insinuate will occur with expanded nightly rentals.

“Our two houses contribute to the city almost $6,000 a year. That’s not chump change. That’s pretty good money,” Ward said.“People are certainly not going to rent a dump. Most overnight rentals here are in far better shape than the average home.”

After the public discussion, the Planning Commission decided to look at how other cities and areas regulate short-term rentals, and then come back with ideas and questions.

Although there is no specific proposal, “people have a huge amount of interest in what this will or will not do to the community,” Commission member Eleanor Dorman said. “I think they are here to give us an opinion, and I quite frankly am very interested in hearing it.”