Washington County planners may be about to dip their toes into the often-turbulent short-term rental/vacation rental debate.
Just a toe, mind you. Planners are not recommending that county officials leap into the Airbnb/VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) issue just yet. Instead, planners could look at the issue as part of the county's to be adopted by commissioners in late March.
"This is low on the priority list," said Stephen Roberts, spokesman for Washington County's Department of Land Use and Transportation. "We just wanted to share this with the board and see if it's an issue they want to work on in the future."
That future discussion can't come fast enough for a Garden Home family that complained to county officials about the short-term rental of a neighboring house. Their complaints led to county planners considering the issue as part of the long-range process, Roberts said.
Washington County doesn't have specific rules governing short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated areas, like those found on http://www.Airbnb.com or http://www.VRBO.com. The county regulates hotels, bed-and-breakfast operations and boarding houses. Short-term vacation rentals are "something in between, and not a use specifically identified in our current codes," Roberts said.
If, and when, county officials start talking about the short-term rental regulations, representatives of HomeAway Inc., the Austin company that owns VRBO.com and other vacation rental/short-term rental marketplace websites, say they are ready to help with that process.
"Vacation rentals serve a strong benefit to a community such as Washington County," said Carl Shepherd, HomeAway co-founder. "Vacation rentals are a great option for business travel accommodations, especially for longer stays due to their affordability over hotels and their ability to allow the traveler to feel at home.
"When Washington County begins to discuss the issue of regulations, HomeAway stands at the ready to become involved and encourage our owners, managers and travelers to advocate for proper regulation, as well."
HomeAway has more than 1 million paid vacation home listings in 190 countries. The company has more than 1,400 employees in 18 offices around the world. In 2013, the publicly traded company's revenue increased by 23 percent to $346.5 million.
A 2013 HomeAway customer satisfaction survey found that owners of second homes often rent their properties 18 weeks a year, for an average of $1,500 a week.
'If they lived next door'
Each year, the county's Long Range Planning staff submits a proposal to commissioners for projects and issues to tackle in the next 12 months. This year's plan, which includes more than three dozen recommended priorities, goes to the board of commissioners March 24 for public comments. If adopted, the plan will map staff's work until April 2016.
Planners are already working on projects that take several years to complete, like development of the Bonny Slope West area, the 2018 regional transportation plan and the Southwest Corridor high-capacity transit plan.
Top-tier requests included in this year's draft long-range plan are updating the county transportation system and finding ways to fund transportation projects, guiding remaining elements of the North Bethany development and monitoring land needs for possible future urban growth boundary expansion.
County planners will take comments on the proposed priorities until 4 p.m. Feb. 26. Send your comments by mail to Long Range Planning Section, Department of Land Use & Transportation, 155 N. First Ave., Suite 350-14, Hillsboro 97124; by fax to 503-846-4412; or by email to email@example.com.
Way down on the list are a handful of requests by citizens or groups asking the county to, among other things, adopt a tree ordinance, provide ongoing support for the Aloha & Reedville Community Council and regulate short-term vacation rentals, like those through Airbnb, Vacation Rental By Owner or other services.
That's where Denise Brem and Bill Yaeger come in. The Garden Home residents complained to county commissioners in early December that a house rented for short stays had disrupted their Southwest 67th Avenue neighborhood for more than three years. The house lists on VRBO.com as a "Multnomah Village bungalow" offering a "peaceful retreat, minutes to downtown."
"It's pretty much an unrelenting stream of strangers who have no stake in the neighborhood," said Bill Yaeger, whose house looks into the bungalow's back yard. "While most of them are nice people, it's still an imposition.
"We believe that it's a use that's inconsistent with a residential neighborhood."
Brem said the issue may be a low priority to some people, but it's a constant source of irritation for her family. "You know why it's a low priority? They don't live next door to one," she said. "Trust me, if they lived next door to one, it would be a bigger issue."
In a two-page Dec. 1 letter, Brem and Yaeger outlined several problems they face each time someone rents the 1,680-square-foot 1938 bungalow. A back yard fire pit is often a focal point of trouble, Brem said, because it is adjacent to her home's master bedroom.
"We have been awakened early mornings by boisterous outdoor photo shoots, group yoga classes and by children being sent outside to play," they wrote to commissioners. "Our sleep has been repeatedly disturbed by parties and bonfires."
Brem and Yaeger said they tried, without much luck, to work with the bungalow's owner, a former neighbor who moved and then rented the house through http://www.VRBO.com. The owner declined to comment for this news story. County officials say the owner isn't violating any county laws by renting the house for short stays.
Starting the discussion
For several years, cities like San Francisco, Boulder, Colo., and New York City, have tried to wrangle local short-term rental regulations. HomeAway officials sued San Francisco to block some of that city's rules. Legal sabers have also been rattled in New York City.
In July 2014, Portland city officials adopted a new set of rules to govern Airbnb rentals after months of talks with the company. The rules regulate the types of places that can be used for short-term rentals (limiting some multifamily dwelling unit rentals), require owners to be on site for most rentals, set up a permit and fee system for the short-term rentals and require Airbnb to collect taxes from property owners who use their online service.
Portland officials faced a similar "sharing economy" battle with Uber, the ride-sharing program challenging local taxi companies. After weeks of fruitless talks, Uber representatives entered the Portland market in December, and promptly faced fines and city legal action.
Uber and Portland called a truce and the ride-sharing company decided to delay its local launch until city officials could rewrite private for-hire transportation regulations.
At the same time, several suburban communities, including Tigard and Beaverton, gladly opened their doors to Uber. Those cities don't regulate taxis as tightly as Portland.
In Washington County's case, Brem and Yaeger offered in their December letter nearly a dozen proposals for rules on short-term rentals in residential areas, such as requiring licenses and permits to operate, fines for repeated violations, collection of transient taxes, limits on noise and requiring property owners to be available by phone to respond to complaints.
"This is so new that some governments haven't adopted rules for it yet," said Yaeger. "So it's up to people like us who are on the front lines, so to speak. We try to raise a stink about it."
Roberts said the county wasn't anxious to jump into the complex issue. Planners will most likely send a letter to commissioners with the long-range planning proposals outlining the issue and giving the board an option to dedicate staff time to possible rules.
"These kinds of things come up periodically," Roberts said. "Cell towers came up like this 20 years ago. Medical marijuana dispensaries were last year's hot topic. We just have to step back and say, 'Is this something we're concerned about, and do we want to regulate it?'"
Brem and Yaeger hope the answer is yes.
"We're at a disadvantage," Brem said. "We don't live in a city, and this seems to be done on a city-by-city basis.
"I understand that they have a lot of big issues to deal with, and there's only so much they can do. I guess I'm happy to get this discussion started."