A family’s plan to launch a new vacation rental business dubbed ‘Pipe Dreams’ in Tofino received a rude awakening after having their business licence refused due to confusion over the town’s zoning bylaws.
Jason and Kristi Wolff had hoped to convince Tofino’s municipal council to overturn district staff’s refusal during a business licence appeal hearing on July 14, but council was unswayed by their claim that they had misunderstood the rules and voted unanimously to uphold staff’s decision.
The issue the Wolffs faced was that Tofino’s zoning bylaws stipulate “A Short Term Rental use may not be located within any dwelling unit that has more than three sleeping units or bedrooms in total,” which meant the five-bedroom house, equipped with a one-bedroom secondary suite, they had built on a vacant lot at 656 Neilsen Place was automatically disqualified from the vacation rental business.
During the appeal hearing, Tofino’s fire chief and manager of protective services Brent Baker explained that the Wolffs were advised of the three-bedroom stipulation by the town’s building inspector Nicholas Henderson while they were building the residence in June, 2020.
He said that an occupation permit was issued on April 22, 2021, for a five-bedroom home and one-bedroom secondary suite and a business licence application for the ‘Pipe Dreams’ vacation rental was submitted on May 3 and denied on May 10.
Coun. Jacky Challenger asked Baker if an onsite inspection was conducted and what the applicants would need to do to come into compliance with the bylaws.
Baker explained that there was no onsite inspection because the application did not meet the criteria for a business licence.
“With the fact that we have 800 business licences under review, it’s important that we do the screening, we communicate back and then we continue,” he said. “If we’re visiting ones we know right away are not in compliance, it slows us down from getting to some of the other ones.”
Baker said a variety of suggestions were offered to the applicant, including potential renovations that would move the vacation rental business into compliance.
Kristi Wolff also addressed council during the hearing and thanked them and staff for their time.
“I know how busy you all are and I really appreciate everything that the district staff has done for us and your time, councillors, to be here with me today to address this,” she said.
She explained that she and Jason are from Port Alberni and are frequent visitors to the West Coast who have long dreamed of setting up shop in Tofino.
“When we found a vacant lot, we decided it was a good fit and we went for it,” she said.
She said the couple kept in close contact with the district during the building process and thought they had a concise plan, but misunderstood the three-bedroom stipulation.
“What we took from those conversations was that the short term rental could only have access to three bedrooms and that we needed to have a long term tenant in there. So, that was really our focus,” she said.
She said the three rooms, as well as two bathrooms, that would operate as the short term rental business are on the top floor and separated from the rest of the house with two bedrooms below being locked and serving only for the Wolff’s personal use.
“It’s just like a little hideout for our family while we’re in town….It’s solely personal use for us,” she said. “We didn’t anticipate that these two bedrooms that are totally separate and locked off were going to be an issue…We honestly weren’t trying to be sneaky with anything. They are bedrooms; we wanted them used as bedrooms.”
Coun. Tom Stere questioned where the confusion around the three-bedroom requirement could have stemmed from.
“It is fairly clear in the bylaw,” he said.
Wolff reiterated that it was her understanding that only three rooms could be used for short term rentals and the three rooms they had allocated for the business were “totally locked off and separate from the rest of the house.”
Coun. Al Anderson asked Wolff if she had considered any of the potential solutions presented by staff.
Wolff responded that one option would have required moving the long term tenant from the secondary suite into the two locked off bedrooms that were intended to be used by the family with the family then using the three bedrooms upstairs and the secondary suite serving as the sole vacation rental, but the tenant was not favourable to the idea of moving.
“The other option was to begin renovations and, as you can imagine, we just finished a very lengthy build process and didn’t want to get into renovations. And, really, the renovations that were suggested, it’s kind of like taking out a door and a closet to a couple of bedrooms so that it’s just an open concept studio and not two bedrooms,” she said. “To me, that’s just kind of lying to say what we’re going to use it for. It doesn’t really make sense to go through construction once again to take down a couple of walls and a couple closets and still have an open space studio that we would use for the same purposes.”
Following Wolff’s submission, council participated in a roll call with each expressing their vote on whether to issue a 2021 business licence, uphold staff’s refusal of the business licence, issue the licence subject to conditions or adjourn the proceedings.
Council Cathy Thicke voted to uphold the refusal.
“I find it very difficult to believe and understand that if you’re running a successful business and you’re building a million dollar home that you haven’t read and understood the bylaw,” Thicke said. “The rules in this town are the same for all, so I uphold the staff decision, which is to refuse the business licence.”
Coun. Duncan McMaster agreed.
“As (American) President Biden said last week, ‘The rules are the rules’ and I think it behoves people when they’re building, or doing anything, to understand the rules as soon as you go in,” he said.
Coun. Al Anderson also supported staff’s position, expressing a wariness around bending the rules.
“I think it would set a precedent that would be difficult to go back on,” he said.
Coun. Jacky Challenger suggested the rules had been adequately explained by staff prior to the applicants’ submitting their business licence application.
“In the correspondence from last summer, it was made very clear that their plans were not in compliance of the bylaw and that they would need to change if they wanted to operate a short term rental in the future,” she said. “There’s nothing stopping them from making the changes to come into compliance, so I would encourage that.”
Coun. Tom Stere voiced support for the third option to set conditions, but ultimately agreed with the rest of council to refuse the licence.
“I do support Coun. Thicke’s position in understanding that the rules do apply to everybody. I think there have been conditions presented to the applicant and, if those were to be fulfilled, I think they would meet the requirements that the district has laid out,” he said.
Dan Law voted in favour of upholding staff’s decision.
“Staff’s actions in this case were proactive and attempted to be helpful and clear and I didn’t find the applicants’ arguments otherwise very compelling,” he said.