Tofino won’t wait for complaints to bust illegal vacation rentals next year.
The district is preparing to take a proactive approach towards enforcing local laws that, it believes, are being ignored by property owners advertising accommodations online.
Tofino’s bylaws are enforced on a complaint-driven basis but, back in March, council directed staff to come up with a plan to crack down on illegal rentals without waiting for calls from concerned citizens.
District CAO Bob MacPherson presented that plan during June 24’s regular meeting.
MacPherson said short term rentals are commonplace in the community but have become a problem for a variety of reasons.
“Short term rentals are largely permitted really quite widely in Tofino…Better than 80 per cent of the single family parcels we have do allow for accommodation and do allow short term rentals,” he said. “We do hear about late night noise, traffic and more recently, as discussion around housing affordability is in almost every discussion that we have, we do hear how commercial uses as vacation rentals permitted in residential areas are pushing out long term tenants.”
He suggested a past council flirted with the idea of prohibiting vacation rentals in Tofino but wound up going in the opposite direction.
“This apparently has been a very long standing issue in Tofino…In 2004-2005 there was a study that was done with a lot of discussion with the community and a lot of community engagement,” he said.
“I understand that council was headed in a direction of prohibition at that time and the direction ended up being more in terms of allowing it and thought of as being an opportunity for people to participate in the resort and tourism economy in town.”
He added regulations were put in place that prohibit rentals from being run without a valid business license and mandate that at least one permanent resident must live on site; an owner or long-term tenant.
He said proactive enforcement of these regulations won’t start until next year to allow district staff to get a clear picture of what the vacation rental scene looks like and to ensure property owners are aware of what they can and can’t do.
“We would like to send a letter to all property owners giving an overview of what’s permitted. There does seem to be a lot of misinformation out there,” MacPherson said. “For the most part, these kind of uses are permitted but there are limitations to them.”
He added associated bylaws would be reviewed to ensure their implications are understood.
“Part of the misunderstanding, or the lack of understanding, that’s out there may be that our bylaws are just not as clear as they could be,” he said.
He suggested the district could cover the costs of increased bylaw enforcement by raising the license fees that anyone wanting to play in the vacation rental market must pay.
“[We’ll] review the business license fee for nightly accommodations to assist with stepping up enforcement…so that those who enjoy the opportunity to have a short term rental, also pay for the regulation of it,” he said.
He said district staff have been monitoring accommodation advertising websites to get an idea of Tofino’s vacation rental activity and is compiling a list of rentals being offered through a computer program dubbed ‘HostCompliance.’
“We’re scraping the web and looking at what’s currently being offered right now,” he said. “While that’s not exhaustive, it gives us a good indication of what’s happening in the vacation rental world.”
He said HostCompliance has found 219 separate properties in Tofino that are being advertised as vacation rentals and staff would comb through these to find illegal suites.
He said these monitoring efforts would continue through 2016 with enforcement, including fines and license suspensions, beginning in 2017.
“2016 is a year of information exchange and information gathering by us and 2017 is when we would see becoming much more active in proactive enforcement,” he said.
He said letters would be sent to property owners this summer.
“Getting them out in the summer, when people are busy, is a bit of a downside but it’s when this is on people’s minds now,” he said.
Mayor Josie Osborne agreed.
“I understand that it’s busy in the summer but I do think it’s important to get this out because we’ve made verbal commitments to the vacation rental owners and management companies that we’re going to give sufficient notice that the ball will be in their court, come the fall, to decide what they’re going to do in 2017,” she said.
Coun. Duncan McMaster suggested sending them out now would cut down on potential pleadings of ignorance.
“Everybody will be here and operating, whereas, if you leave it later, there’s going to be quite a few of those places that shut down for the winter, disappear and then the first complaint we get next summer is, ‘Well, we didn’t know about this until we got back,’” he said.
Coun. Cathy Thicke suggested sending the letters out with water bills or having residents sign at the post office to confirm they received them to ensure compliance.
“I’m just concerned that people might find a loophole in saying, ‘We weren’t informed,” she said.
Osborne said sending the letters out with water bills could cut down on postage costs but she doubted signatures to prove receipt would be needed.
“There’s no loophole for not being informed about the bylaws,” she said. “I really don’t think this will come as a surprise to anybody.”
MacPherson agreed and noted the rules being brought up have been in place for roughly a decade.
“We’re not talking about a change in regulation. We’re talking about a different enforcement practice for regulations that have been in place for a very long time,” he said.