Bylaws staff begin search for illegal rentals
By Andy Stonehouse
After years of turning a blind eye to illegal tourist rentals in residential neighbourhoods, Whistler's new policy requiring owners and rental companies to register with the municipality is now in full swing.
Those overseeing the one-year illegal rentals "amnesty" admit that success will depend on the co-operation of those owners and rental companies, many of whom may be a bit spooked by signing agreements which could require them to cease and desist their profitable operations on May 1, 1999.
Speaking at Monday's council meeting, municipal planner Kim Needham said that despite offering a process for people to convert their illegal rental businesses into legal ones, there's been little response to the call.
"So far, we've only received three applications for rezoning, and six addresses have signed operating agreements," she said.
That said, the municipality will now be shifting its efforts to rooting out the dozens of illegal chalet and villa rentals operating throughout the community by tracking down owners and making them aware of the new rules.
The municipal bylaws department has put Ivar Toop on the case full time, and the bylaws officer said he will be kept very busy over the next year doing what he can to identify chalet and villa operations and encourage them to follow the rules or cease their businesses.
Illegal rental operations that register with the municipality will be allowed to operate until May, 1999. To continue operating beyond 1999 a chalet or villa rental operation must be re-zoned specifically for that purpose. The re-zoning process can take as long as 12 months.
Toop, who took over the new role three weeks ago, said he has been working to pool resources and years' worth of files on illegal rentals in order to begin the process of tracing and notifying owners about the municipality's two-month-old enforcement crackdown.
"Not a lot of people have come forward, so we've got to hunt them down," Toop said. "There's a whole lot of paperwork... the problem has gone unchecked for a decade, but most of these businesses are still in the WRA guide. That's how entrenched the problem is."
Toop said he has been using the WRA winter vacation planning guide itself as a first resource to uncover illegal tourist rentals, cross-referencing the listings with rental company brochures and dozens of Internet listings for nightly accommodation.
"One company I've already looked into currently manages 12 illegals, and that's just one company. When I looked into another company, their first listing was also illegal."
Toop is now beginning the process of sending warning letters out to the management companies and to the property owners themselves, many of whom live overseas. He said the message will go out to both, giving owners the opportunity to bring their operations into legal status.
He said he realizes that many owners may be a bit remiss to voluntarily identify themselves, but suggests the timing is right, especially as illegal operations will face enforcement action beginning next year.
"We don't want to put the damper on tourists visiting the community, but there are already plenty of legal residential companies who have to pay taxes, so it seems pretty appropriate. I guess it's anybody's guess why some owners aren't coming forward, but maybe they think nothing will happen... a lot of times in the municipality, things are said but they don't come through."
Whistler Councillor Kristi Wells said she is concerned that none of the management companies have voluntarily come forward to participate in the amnesty program, and hopes the lines of communication can be opened.
"If we're not proactive to them, they may just let it slide and launch a legal challenge in 1999," she said. "I would be disappointed if we didn't contact everyone by the end of 1998."
Owners who do wish to begin the process to register their illegal accommodations can do so by contacting the municipality, as long as they can provide proof that they were operating during the winter of 1997/98. Signing the agreement frees owners from any bylaws prosecution until May 1, 1999, and allows the owner to apply for rezoning or a land use contract amendment to convert the operations to legal status.
During his next year of duties, Toop said he will also be spending time working to identify illegal suites being rented in homes throughout the community. No such rezoning amnesty is planned to address those suites.