After months of debate, new rules for Airbnbs in Lake Stevens

Some residents aired concerns about unruly guests and lakeside parties, but rental hosts say they’re being unfairly judged.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118

LAKE STEVENS — When Aileen Spradlin moved to Lake Stevens 20 years ago, she and her husband felt safe boating and waterskiing on the water. But in the past decade, she said, the lake has become congested. She senses many of the people who visit during the summer are from out of town and don’t know the rules of the lake.

“They’re coming here to cut loose and party,” bringing loud music and alcohol, Spradlin said.

Now, she worries a new city code will make the problem worse.

The controversial ordinance passed this month lays down new regulations for short-term rentals, homes or apartments usually rented out on sites like Airbnb or Vrbo. Both rental hosts and some outspoken residents have taken issue with the new rules.

Ordinance 1139 updates short-term rental regulations from a code set down in 1998. An accompanying resolution establishes a $500 application fee for a permit and a $100 yearly renewal fee. Previously, the required permit cost $1,000. The code went into effect Wednesday.

The new regulations have been in the works for about a year. The city held public hearings on the topic and created a Short-Term Rental Advisory committee last year.

Out of an estimated 25 to 30 short-term rentals already in the city, only one was operating legally under the previous regulations, Community Development Director Russell Wright said at the April 11 council meeting.

That’s likely because previous code was adopted before short-term rental websites became the phenomenon they are today.

‘A public lake’

A key point of contention is whether visitors will disturb the peace of long-term residents, particularly in the valuable waterfront district. That’s a trend that some, like Spradlin, say has already started.

In a controversial amendment proposed by council member Marcus Tageant, the city removed a limit of 10 rentals in the Waterfront Residential district.

“The lake is special,” Lake Stevens resident Nikki Odegaard said, and should be “kept available to everybody.”

Traffic on the the lake makes it unsafe, she said, when people don’t follow rules or know how to operate boats properly.

Joe Platz, a short-term rental owner, disagreed with that framing.

“It’s a public lake,” he said. “The people who are blessed enough to live on the water knew that they were moving on to a full recreation lake.”

He also said none of his guests have arrived with boats.

At the recent council meeting, some residents also expressed concern about corporations buying up property in the city to rent out as vacation homes. Hosts said those fears are overblown.

“Lake Stevens is not Lake Chelan or Leavenworth or Scottsdale, Arizona,” said Rick Trout, who rents out an apartment on his property on Airbnb. “I just think it’s kind of crazy to compare the city of Lake Stevens to a true resort destination area.”

Among other regulations, the new code limits the total number of short-term rental licenses in Lake Stevens to 50.

In the original proposal, rentals needed to be at least 300 feet apart. In the final version, it’s 150 feet — still too far apart, some hosts said. That amendment was also proposed by Tageant.

In June 2022, a resident emailed city officials to point out Tageant owns a property management company, calling it “a clear conflict of interest” and asking that Tageant recuse himself. Tageant did not. He could not be reached for comment.

The code also limits the number of “parties” that can stay in a rental at the same time to two. At the meeting, council member Gary Petershagen proposed an amendment defining a rental party as four or fewer people who are not related to each other, meaning the maximum would not apply to large families. That amendment passed.

‘Ambiguous at best’

In interviews, several residents said they were unhappy with changes from previous drafts of the ordinance. Earlier drafts restricted how many rentals one host can run, for example. That was cut from the final version.

Meanwhile, rental owners said they were frustrated with the negative tone of the discussion.

Hosts said their guests are not partiers or college students. Trout said most of his renters are people traveling for work or visiting family who live in Lake Stevens. He said he’s also had several guests who live in Lake Stevens and had issues with their home, like a burst pipe. One of those families needed a place to stay close to their children’s school.

“It just kind of bothers me that … the general public is being pushed this narrative” that Airbnbs are party houses, Trout said.

People on both sides asked questions about how the city would ensure compliance. John Spencer, a former mayor who served on the advisory committee, said enforcement was going to be a problem — especially noise complaints in the middle of the night.

“I think that the city is ill-equipped to be able to be enforcing these things,” he said, noting police and code enforcement are understaffed.

It will also be a challenge to enforce rental party size, defined as a maximum of four people not related to each other.

“Are you going to require birth certificates to check to see if they’re related or unrelated?” Platz asked. The rule, he said, is “ambiguous at best.”

A permit can be revoked if a host violates city code.

Spencer was also concerned about short-term rentals decreasing the number of houses available to buyers and driving up the cost of housing, noting that there is an affordable housing crisis happening now. Short-term rentals also change the neighborhoods they’re in, he said.

“A short-term rental, in my view, is not much different than having a motel next door to you,” Spencer said.

‘Run the numbers’

But for some hosts, the new rules are too limiting. For one thing, the ordinance requires hosts to either live on the short-term rental property or have a primary residence in the Lake Stevens Urban Growth Area. That excludes people from neighboring cities, like Marysville and Snohomish.

Jesse Maddox operates an Airbnb in Lake Stevens while living in Snohomish. Though one of his residences is close enough to the city to count, he doesn’t think that rule is fair, calling it “atrocious.”

“I shouldn’t have to buy a secondary property five minutes away when I live two minutes away,” he said.

Another issue is the cap on permits. Some say 50 is too low.

“If you run the numbers, that’s what, one fourth of less than one percent (of total homes in the city)?” said Julian Travis, who rents out a house he owns. “So we’re talking a fraction of the homes in Lake Stevens are allowed to be a short-term rental.”

Travis noted, however, that limitation wasn’t a sticking point for him.

Platz found the regulations heavy-handed in general. He does not agree with short-term renting being described as a business activity, as opposed to residential use, and pointed out that long-term rentals are often not well maintained.

Short-term rental guests, Platz said, “do not want to stay in a dumpy property. … So these properties are being maintained at the highest levels.” Hosts, he said, aren’t going to let guests have wild parties and destroy their property.

For residents like Odegaard, those assurances aren’t good enough.

“None of us is against some growth,” she said. “The problem was with rowdy strangers taking over a place, who … don’t care if they offend all the neighbors, because they’ll be gone in a couple of days.”

The council plans to re-evaluate the ordinance in the fall.

At last Tuesday’s meeting, council member Anji Jorstad acknowledged the process of crafting the ordinance was long and arduous and said she was proud of the Planning Commission and the citizens who came forward with concerns.

“This is not an ordinance that anyone in this room supports 100 percent,” Jorstad said. “It is a compromise of many, many perspectives. And it’s not perfect.”

How other places compare to Lake Stevens’ new short-term rental policy

What’s the cost to get a permit to run an Airbnb or Vrbo?

Lake Stevens: $500 to apply, $100 to renew each year.

Everett: $99 January through June, $50 the rest of the year. Renewal is $13, unless the business makes more than $40,000 per year. It’s $26 extra per year for each additional location.

Seattle: $75 per unit every year. You’ll also need to apply for a business license tax certificate. That cost is a sliding scale based on revenue.

Chelan County: $500 every year for smaller short-term rental permits. Higher-occupancy rentals require an initial payment of $2,270 and cost $750 per year to renew.

Is there a cap on the number of short-term rentals one host can operate?

Lake Stevens: No.

Everett: Yes.

Seattle: Yes.

Chelan County: No.

Is there a cap on the number of short-term rentals in the city (or county)?

Lake Stevens: Yes.

Everett: No.

Seattle: No.

Chelan County: Yes.

How many people can stay in a short-term rental?

Lake Stevens: Two “parties” — four or fewer people unrelated to each other.

Everett: Eight or fewer.

Seattle: Eight or fewer unless guests are related.

Chelan County: It depends. Up to 16 in the highest-occupancy tier.

Are hosts required to live in the area?

Lake Stevens: Yes.

Everett: No.

Seattle: No, but they must have a local contact available to guests.

Chelan County: No, but they have to have a “qualified person” available to respond to complaints within an hour.

What are some of the big changes for short-term rentals in Lake Stevens?

Old code: Owners required to live on the rental property.

New code: Now, the host can live elsewhere in the Lake Stevens Urban Growth Area.

Old code: Rentals couldn’t host guests for more than 30 total days a year and more than 10 consecutive days.

New code: No limit on the total days. A short-term rental is defined as a property rented out to guests for less than 30 consecutive days.

Old code: Permit cost $1,000.

New code: Permit costs $500 to apply and $100 to renew.

New code: Short-term rentals now have to be at least 150 feet apart.

New code: Cap of 50 short-term rental permits issued by the city.

New code: Limits “parties” per rental to two. A rental party is defined as a group of four or fewer people, unless members of the party are related.

Sophia Gates: 425-339-3035; sophia.gates@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @SophiaSGates.

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