Council debates illegal nightly rental enforcement 

Complex zoning bylaws, global booking sites taken into consideration

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With the growing popularity of global tourism bookings sites and Whistler's complex property zoning system, municipal council is once again looking at regulation strategies for dealing with illegal nightly rental units in the resort.

The municipal supervisor of bylaw services, Sandra Smith, reported to council at a Committee of the Whole meeting this week that there have been 28 suspected illegal nightly unit files opened recently, with 19 of those now concluded after the RMOW issued a letter seeking compliance within 30 days.

Four property owners that were notified have yet to respond to Bylaw Services, four more have only recently received their notice and one owner continues to operate illegally despite receiving a final notice.

The issue has garnered considerable attention in recent months after local tourism accommodation property owner Madeleine Hamilton provided a list to the RMOW of over 60 Whistler rental properties in residential areas she believed were in contravention of municipal zoning.

The major complaint from Hamilton was that these illegally operating property owners are taking potential revenue away from legitimate accommodation providers, who typically pay thousands of dollars a year in commercial and marketing fees. These illegal units also pose potential security and safety risks to guests, as they may not be going through the proper inspection and licensing processes.

Despite a recent increase in the number of complaints received at Municipal Hall, and the proliferation of user-driven tourism booking sites like Airbnb, Smith said the RMOW hasn't seen a major increase in the number of identified illegal nightly units.

The municipality has several measures they can take once a property owner is discovered to be operating illegally. The first, and most common, is to issue a letter for compliance. Bylaw officers can also issue a $1,000 fine per day for illegal use of property, and the RMOW can seek an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court, which costs the municipality around $15,000 per case.

To date, Bylaw Services has opened 329 tourist accommodation files, 317 of which have been concluded, with 22 still ongoing.

Coun. Duane Jackson acknowledged the need to monitor the issue, but questioned how to develop "a consistent approach to (regulating) all forms of direct marketing that aren't meeting some form of bylaw" in the resort.

Whistler officials recognize the emerging trend of self-booked vacations and questioned how to regulate it.

"How do we enforce against the direction that a whole generation is moving in?" asked acting mayor Jack Crompton.

Smith noted that more Whistler residents are advertising their property on Internet sites, and may not be aware of local zoning bylaws. She said the most common Whistler property listed on Internet sites is a single-family home, typically with a single room for rent.

"It's quite complex, and how do you go about tackling (illegal nightly rentals) and what level of enforcement do you want to have, and how much do you want to intervene in something like that?" asked the RMOW's planning manager Mike Kirkegaard, who was involved in developing the municipality's C14 bylaw when the nightly rental issue first came to the council table in 1998.

Local Sue Chappel of alluraDirect has put in place measures to identify potential illegal properties before they're listed on her site.

"We've implemented some red flags that will trigger us to look at the listing a lot more closely prior to it even going active on our site," she said, adding that so far they have identified around 75 illegal units.

She has also been pushing resort partners for the creation of a centralized, online database that lists the full range of legitimized nightly rental units in Whistler, an effort she said should be paired with enforcement.

"We need just one central location where you can execute a search and know that everything that's listed there is available there, you can book it, it's legitimate, it's safe, there're community embraced standards and there's some level of accountability," Chappel said.

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