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Ucluelet likely to ease short term rental restrictions after not opting in to Bill - 35

Ucluelet takes opposite approach as Tofino with council likely to repeal restrictions from 2022
This chart from Ucluelet council’s April 16 agenda shows 10 per cent of the town’s bed and breakfasts are in compliance with local bylaws, with 46 per cent legally non-conforming, 41 per cent “nominally compliant” and 3 per cent “unclear.”

Ucluelet’s municipal council looks likely to ease short-term rental restrictions it put in place in 2022.

The restrictions on the chopping block include a maximum of two guests per room, the gross floor area of the rental use not exceeding 35 per cent of the dwelling it’s located in, a mandate to offer guests breakfast and the only permissible entrance to a rental suite being a residence’s primary entrance.

Those restrictions were put in place as part of a controversial bylaw that passed in 2022 by the town’s former council, of which only two current council members sat on.

Marilyn McEwen, who now serves as mayor, was a councillor at the time and voted against the bylaw. Coun. Jennifer Hoar was the only councillor to run for re-election to the position and had voted for it.

At the time it was passed, existing short-term rental operators were assured that their properties would be considered legally non-conforming and not subject to the new rules.

Two years later, that legal non conforming status is set to evaporate on May 1 due to new short-term rental restrictions introduced by the provincial government.

While Ucluelet elected not to opt-in to the province’s Bill 35, the loss of legal non-conforming status was not an option for municipalities to opt-in or out of and that has about 49 Ucluelet tourist accommodations at risk of losing their short-term rental licence immediately.

Unsurprisingly, council received a significant amount of letters on their April 16 council agenda urging them not to allow the legal non conforming use to vanish and the meeting saw what is likely to be the largest audience council chambers has seen in 2024.

“This issue is pretty concentrated, it’s also though pretty connected to a larger context of housing, growth and the proportion of tourist accommodation to housing, which leads into a discussion of how the community sees itself and really what kind of future we want in Ucluelet,” the district’s Director of Community Planning Bruce Greig explained during April 16’s meeting.

He said the provincial government laid out “some pretty big changes” to provincial laws that affect local governments when it adopted the Short-term Rental Accommodations Act in December.

He said he was talking about his report to council “with a very wise member of our community earlier today,” who said “We need to balance fairness to the individual with addressing the housing needs of the community and the broader picture of the whole community.”

“There’s a larger community interest here, but also some very real, specific individual situations and I think you’ve had a lot of correspondence that you’ve read that’s come in on these,” he said. “We’re recommending that we renew a bunch of B and B business licences for 2024 despite their non conformity with the zoning bylaw and allow those licence holders and community members to take a bit of a deep breath while we kind of tackle some of the bigger pieces, which are going to take more time.”

McEwen suggested that “based on the correspondence, we know where the community is at,” noting she had voted against the 2022 zoning amendment bylaw.

“I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now,” she said, drawing a loud applause from the audience. “I would suggest we repeal that bylaw.”

READ MORE: Ucluelet passes new bed and breakfast restrictions in heated 3-2 vote

She suggested that would bring all currently legally non-conforming vacation rentals into compliance.

Coun. Ian Kennington spoke next and said his opposition to the 2022 bylaw was what motivated him to put his name forward in the election.

“It’s why I ran for council. I didn’t like it either,” Kennington said. “I think the unintended consequences for this are great, the benefits have shown to be very small.”

He suggested that since the bylaw had passed he had not seen any new developments in Ucluelet and assured he would support McEwen in repealing the 2022 bylaw.

“I would prefer to see staff time go towards getting projects built that house people as opposed to going after people’s basements,” he said, also drawing loud applause from the audience.

Coun. Shawn Anderson said “staff’s heart is in the right place” in terms of finding ways to make housing affordable in the community and suggested the 2022 bylaw was born out of fear that Ucluelet would be inundated with people buying properties to build mini-hotels.

“That was sort of the stress and the worry and we’ve seen it in other townships, I’m not going to mention which one, but sometimes that happens in small places and it gets overrun by investors and things like that,” Anderson said. “I think in this case, protecting ourselves in having that legislation from the boogeyman, we inadvertently set up rules that would really hurt people that were playing by the rules.”

McEwen agreed and added she would like to see a new zoning definition that restricts short-term rentals that could be applied to any new developments.

“We could apply that zoning so that there would be no nightly rentals and that would be a way of stopping that rise,” she said.

Kennington suggested establishing a new zoning would help Ucluelet keep its Resort Municipality status, citing a suggestion from McEwen earlier this year that the RMI status would be taken away if Ucluelet’s long-term properties outnumbered its short-term rentals.

“It gives us a tool to, as we grow as a community, adjust the unit count of nightly rentals and long-term accommodation so that we retain our resort funding,” he said. “If we get too heavy on the long-term, hopefully, then we have a zoning tool, the original R1 that we can apply in small doses to maintain that balance, maintain our funding and maintain housing for everybody.”

Coun. Jennifer Hoar noted council had discussed putting a cap on the number of short-term rentals before and wondered if that conversation would kick back up again.

“How many do we think is viable? How many do we have to be aware of to continue to be a resort municipality?” she asked, adding the community could not afford all the amenities built in town without that funding.

Greig suggested staff had looked into Ucluelet’s RMI status and concluded that it does not hinge on any specific numbers or ratios, like council had suggested.

“As far as we can tell, there’s no trigger where we would lose our RMI status if the balance came in at a certain number of units,” Greig said.

He added there has been a pattern of rapid growth in bed and breakfasts correlating with a rapid growth in housing prices in Ucluelet.

“Over the last 10 years, there’s been this increase in the cost of housing, but wages haven’t really kept up,” he said.

He said the balance between tourist accommodation and long-term housing is about equal currently, whereas in the past there had been more housing than tourist accommodations.

Council seemed to all agree that the 49 legally non-conforming short-term rentals should be allowed to continue through 2024, but was split on whether to scrap the 2022 restrictions entirely.

“I don’t want us to have something get thrown at us even later that causes even more problems because the province has just been dropping these little drips of legislation instead of giving us all the rules at the same time and giving us all the information,” Hoar said. “I would hate to make a big long-term decision and then discover that we now have to scramble again and fix it.”

Greig agreed the province has made “huge changes.”

“These are some of the biggest changes the province has made since they adopted the Agricultural Land Reserve in the early ‘70’s,” he said. “No one saw all these pieces coming…Not surprisingly, there are some unintended consequences and we’re going to have to iron out those wrinkles…The immediate one here is that we have some current people who have business licences to operate an accessory businesses in their home that followed all the rules and as of May 1, we have a problem.”

He said a bigger community conversation around how much tourism is too much and how the community houses its residents is needed.

McEwen responded that a more immediate issue is at hand.

“For now, I think, we need to help these 49 families that are at risk of losing their business licence May 1,” she said.

McEwen drew applause from the audience again by suggesting the goal should be repeal the 2022 bylaw that put the properties in non-compliance.

Kennington agreed and suggested Ucluelet’s local bylaws are more restrictive than the province’s new legislation.

“What we’re talking about doing in a tourist town is being more restrictive on nightly rentals than the province is even asking people who are not in tourist towns to do,” he said. “It’s like saying, ‘No more cutting down trees in a logging town,’ or, ‘Stop fishing in a fishing village.’ This is, unfortunately for some, who we are and what we are now and until we expand our economy to have different ways for people to earn a living, this is it.”

Kennington’s words again drew loud applause from the audience.

Coun. Mark Maftei opposed repealing the bylaw and suggested supporting short term rentals was the wrong direction for the long term health of the community.

“The rationale behind the guidelines is to address what most people would agree is a housing crisis,” he said. “The purpose of the guidelines is specifically to limit the allocation of dwelling space to short term rentals. It’s not about punishing people, it’s not about threatening, it’s not about cajoling them into providing long-term rentals, but it’s about reducing the number of STR’s because there’s a pattern that we see everywhere where STR’s have proliferated and they have mostly negative effects in those communities. There are countless examples in Canada and around the world and there’s a growing body of evidence that conclusively shows that too many STR’s are driving property values up, they’re driving rent up and they create a socio-economic imbalance. There’s also strong evidence that reducing the number of STRS actually reverses those trends.”

He said he felt significant sympathy for the bed and breakfast operators currently facing losing their legal non conforming status and that allowing them to operate for the rest of the year could “soften the blow and give people time to adjust.”

“It’s my hope that everyone can leave here resting sure and confident that the summer and fall for them isn’t going to be affected, but eventually things are going to have to change,” he said. “As far as these properties go, folks are going to have to either bring them into compliance or figure out how to transition away from relying on a non-compliant business to make ends meet.”

He said he would like to find ways to encourage and incentivize residents to transition away from short-term and into long-term rentals.

“At the end of the day, I think, times are changing. There was a time in Ucluelet when houses would just pipe their sewage into the inlet. The town grew and people decided they weren’t OK with that. They established bylaws to prevent that, even to the dissatisfaction and displeasure of people who now had to go to the expense of putting in plumbing. We didn’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re just going to grandfather all of those houses in because that’s the way it’s been.’ Times change. Communities change,” he said.

He noted many of the letters that came in urging council to not let them lose their legal non conforming status represented local families.

“I’ve got kids here too and there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder how the impact of the decisions that we make today are going to affect our kids…What’s a quick way now if in 10-15 years all of my kids and all of your kids have zero prospect to live here and they have to move away. What’s that community going to look like?” he asked.

“In a nutshell, I definitely don’t want to shut anyone down here, but I don’t think that coming up with ways to plug STRs back into the system is the solution.”

Kennington reiterated that the district should be focused on building new housing.

“If we look for every crawl space, every basement, every bedroom that we can cram somebody in, we’re going to run out of rooms before we fix the problem anyway,” he said.

“The solution is to stop spending time with these regulations and get down to the business of building homes. We can grow our way out of this at the rate that we need to if we focus on that…I want to be proactive. We don’t need to go this route and try and put people in other people’s homes, especially in a tourist town.”

Kennington’s comments again drew loud applause.

Anderson agreed and said Canada has not kept up with housing as the population has grown.

“There’s basically no houses that were really built for almost 20 years. There were no incentives, but the population grew, there was immigration, we just didn’t keep in lock-step with the availability of housing for the people that were coming here,” he said.

“It’s interesting because then it’s the municipalities who end up having to pick up the pieces in that case because we’re the ones who end up having to house people and we’re having a really hard time with it.”

He said vilifying short term rentals was “a knee jerk reaction to go for the low hanging fruit” and added visitors to Ucluelet don’t always want their experience based in a hotel.

“They want to stay in the community and they want to be able to live amongst us. I think that’s part of the character of our town and I think STRs are part of who we are,” he said.

Hoar seemed to agree with Maftei and said she would like to see the legal non-conforming short term rentals operate through the rest of 2024, but then a longer-term vision pursued.

“I’m just going to say it, although I’m not sure how I feel about it 100 per cent, but the cheapest housing is the housing that’s already built,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to vilify B and B’s and I don’t want the non-conformings shut down in two weeks. I think that’s ridiculous. I would like a solution, but I would like us to be looking towards a long-term solution.”

Maftei doubted the provincial or federal governments would rescue Ucluelet from its current housing situation.

“I don’t think anyone should feel like STR’s are the enemy here but, at the end of the day, we have to be realistic about what our options are,” he said.

“Here we are in Ucluelet, we have to make decisions here, today, for our community. If we’re going to wait around for the province or the federal government to come and build us housing, we’re going to be waiting a long time. What happens in the meantime?..Where are workers going to stay?”

He suggested the housing projects being proposed by developers are “all completely out of range for most normal working people, certainly for people who live in Ucluelet.”

“We’re going to end up with lots of really nice fancy mansions and we’re not going to be able to house the people that are struggling or have struggled and left,” he said.

He suggested the letters council had received did not represent the community as a whole, but rather the stakeholders worried about losing their short term rental licences.

“That’s why 49 people wrote in, but there are a lot more than 49 people in this town and a lot of them have had to leave because they couldn’t find a place to stay or rent, they couldn’t afford it anymore,” he said.

“We need to be realistic that there is no silver bullet solution that’s just over the horizon. We have to make little steps, little changes, and just do the next right thing and I’m not sure putting more short term rentals into our community is going to do anything but exacerbate a lot of the challenges that we’re facing.”

McEwen responded that many short term rental operators rely on that income to afford their mortgage.

“Giving them a year to figure it out, that is not helping. That’s not going to help anybody. That’s going to add stress for 365 days for these people,” she said, to another round of applause.

Maftei said he felt sympathy for them, but reiterated that a transition is needed.

Kennington reiterated council should be doing more to get new projects built.

“With the lots that we have that are proposed in Ukee, we’re talking about doubling the size of the town. If none of those are allowed to do STRs, we’re going to grow our way out of the problem and dilute the situation again without hurting anybody,” he said.

“If you know what you’re buying into and you’re buying into something that doesn’t have STR, then you can never complain about it. Pulling the rug out is not the solution.”

After Kenningtons comment again drew loud applause, McEwen asked which councillors would support her in repealing the 2022 restrictions and both Kennington and Anderson raised their hands, suggesting a 3-2 majority over Maftei and Hoar.

“OK. Then that’s something we will move forward with,” McEwen said.

Greig said it would likely not be as simple as repealing the entire bylaw, but that staff would bring forward a new bylaw with changes based on council’s conversation at a future date.

Council also directed staff to bring forward a report on a new zoning that would restrict future nightly rentals in residential neighbourhoods and to issue renewed business licences to the legally non-conforming vacation rentals before May 1.

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Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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