Today (Wednesday), Lincoln County commissioners will hold the first public reading of new short-term rental regulations two years in the making.

The most extensive overhaul ever of county code licensing the use of single-family dwellings as vacation rentals began in 2019. Existing regulations do not cap the total number of such operations allowed in unincorporated areas — cities set their own regulations, and most do have caps — and the number of licensed rentals increased by about 100 from the time the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners began their discussion on the matter until March 2020, when it declared a moratorium on new licenses while new regulations were being considered.

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires diverted resources and time away from that effort, and commissioners extended the moratorium several times, most recently until Nov. 30. During the commission’s Sept. 29 meeting, former county counsel Wayne Belmont, who stayed on past his July retirement in a part-time capacity to see the project through, presented them with a near-final-draft version of a new ordinance.

The first public reading of the ordinance at 10 a.m. today will include some tweaks — commissioners asked Belmont to add language clarifying that occupancy limits applied 24 hours a day, and asked him to bring back more information regarding properties grandfathered in under the previous ordinance, to which certain occupancy limits do not apply.

The board will hold another public reading and expects to adopt an ordinance before the end of the month. Here are the four main changes in the proposed ordinance:

• Occupancy — No more than two people per bedroom plus two, down from three per bedroom plus three, with a total maximum of 16 (commissioners indicated they thought 16 was a little high). Belmont has said he believes this element could have the biggest impact on issues that drive rental-related complaints, such as noise, parking and garbage.

• Septic — All properties would be required to have their septic systems inspected by an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality authorized professional and obtain an existing system evaluation report no later than Dec. 31, 2023.

Periodic maintenance by a DEQ-authorized contractor would be required thereafter, at intervals determined by the specific kind of system in use. In addition to insuring proper system function, the report would also establish a number of allowed bedrooms based on system capacity (which would create a new dwelling occupancy limit if less than the number of actual bedrooms).

• Complaint hearing — Complaints will initially be handled the same way — an attempt at resolution with a property’s local contact and then, if unresolved, a formal complaint filed either through the online system or in writing to the sheriff’s office community services officer. Previously, the officer would then investigate and have to essentially witness the conduct before citing a violation. Under the new ordinance, if the officer finds there is “information, evidence and belief” provided by the complainant or found in the investigation, the officer can issue a written report and summon the property owner to appear for an informal hearing within 30 days of the complaint.

The hearings officer’s decision on whether a violation occurred and what the penalty should be could then be appealed to circuit court. A provision would be added to the section of code regarding license revocation or nonrenewal establishing three findings of violation by a hearings officer, regardless of penalty, as grounds for such action.

• License caps — The code language presented to commissioners could actually allow the total number of short-term rental licenses in the county to go up long before they drop, as Commissioner Kaety Jacobson noted. Rather than a ceiling for the number of total licenses in the county, the board asked Belmont to devise caps based on a percentage of physical addresses by region, splitting the county into seven areas.

Five of those areas — from the north county line to the south, all west of Highway 101 — would be capped below their current percentages, although the proposed ordinance would not eliminate any licenses, so numbers would only drop when licenses are voluntarily surrendered or revoked due to violations. About one-fourth of the physical addresses in region five, between Waldport and Yachats, are currently vacation rentals. The new proposed cap is 13 percent. Other coastal regions would have lower caps — from south to north, region four would be capped at 8.5 percent (currently 10.6), region three at 10 percent (currently 14.1), region two at 5 percent (currently 5.6) and region one at 6.6 (currently 7.1).

However, the two large regions east of the highway, split at Highway 20, with region six on the north side and region seven on the south, could see an increase in licenses. Less than one percent of physical addresses in either region are short-term rentals, and their new caps would be 1.5 percent. Total licenses countywide could potentially rise by more than 50 before anyone west of Highway 101 surrenders or loses theirs.

Heather Brann, a short-term rental property owner and frequent participant in the board’s public discussion, submitted a written comment regarding the proposed language. “I am writing because I have concerns about the (board) adopting changes to the short-term rental code without an analysis of what percentage of tourist dollars come into the county from STRs,” Brann wrote. As an example, she submitted with her comment a report by Tillamook County of its transient room tax revenue by area and lodging type — bed and breakfast, hotel, multi-family, campground and single-family, the latter being the principal short-term rentals addressed in Lincoln County’s proposed ordinance.

In calendar year 2020, $3.2 million of Tillamook County’s $4.7 million in transient room tax revenue came from single-family dwelling rentals. The analysis includes both cities (about $200,000) and unincorporated areas (about $4.5 million).

According to Finance Director Christina Shearer, in unincorporated areas of Lincoln County, the transient room tax revenue from all rental types for fiscal year 2019-20 was just over $3 million, and it rose by just less than $500,000 the following fiscal year.

Monica Kirk, a resident of an unincorporated neighborhood north of Depoe Bay and a core member of an organization seeking to strictly limit short-term rentals, also submitted written comments on the proposed changes and asked for figures on tax revenue by rental type. Kirk also asked if data regarding complaints would be made publicly available and how the sheriff would enforce occupancy limits if officers are not allowed to enter a house to determine the number of people inside.

Written comments from Bob Sulek, a South Beach resident who has contributed to a political action committee in favor of a ballot measure to phase out short-term rentals in unincorporated Lincoln County, called the proposed occupancy limits “a step in the right direction,” but in need of tightening. He suggested a better approach to the septic issue would be enforce existing laws that require travelers’ accommodations to be connected to a sewer.

Sulek criticized the approach to license caps as not going far enough, and he, as well as another commenter, took issue with commissioners’ remarks Sept. 29 regarding the short-term rental ballot measure.

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