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TA issue drags on

There’s little doubt the municipality has, over the last six years, failed to adequately address the issue of nightly rentals in residential neighbourhoods.

There’s little doubt the municipality has, over the last six years, failed to adequately address the issue of nightly rentals in residential neighbourhoods. But changing circumstances over that time have also made nightly rentals a moving target, and when you’re hunting gazelle and your weapon is a blunderbuss known as legislation you don’t come home with many trophies.

Be that as it may, the hunt – the latest chapter of which was played out last weekend in the Myrtle Philip school gym – has been entertaining.

Six years ago the issue was the emerging British skier market. Brits wanted to rent ski chalets, with attendant chalet girls who would do the shopping and cooking. To meet this market demand people began renting houses to British tour operators for the winter. This upset pension and bed and breakfast owners, who had gone to the expense of getting rezoning, meeting safety standards and collecting applicable taxes. So the municipality decided it had to address the issue, but delicately so as not to destroy the British market.

The first approach was spot zoning. Owners of residential homes who wanted to make their properties available on a nightly basis were invited to apply for rezoning as tourist accommodation. While there was no shortage of applicants for TA rezoning, the opposition was even more impressive. Neighbours made their concerns crystal clear: they didn’t want the noise and inconvenience of living next to a house operated as a hotel. So TA rezoning was scrapped.

The preferred solution would have been something less permanent than rezoning, like a temporary licence for tourist accommodation, but the Municipal Act then in place didn’t allow that.

By this time, with a number of legally zoned TA properties becoming available in newer neighbourhoods like Nicklaus North and Blueberry Hill, the municipality decided to enforce its existing zoning bylaws, which said that most single family residential homes could not be rented for periods of less than 28 consecutive days. But it gave tour operators and property managers more than a year to prepare for the crack down.

This was about three years ago, just prior to the last municipal election, and a slate of candidates tried to make it an election issue. Their support on election day was underwhelming and the new council felt, rightly, that voters had made their preference on the TA issue clear. So with some residential property owners continuing to make their homes available for rent on a nightly basis the municipality pursued the matter in court.

It only took a day or two for a judge to hear the facts in the Miller/Rivera case, but it was a year before the decision was handed down. That, of course, was appealed. This past spring an appeal court upheld the earlier ruling; that residential single family houses may not be rented for periods of less than 28 consecutive days.

Armed with this, the municipality decided to make an example of, an Internet-based company that facilitates the rental of properties, most of which are zoned for tourist accommodation but which also includes a few "illegal" properties among its listings. The thinking was that going after property managers and facilitators was more efficient than going after the owners of non-TA-zoned properties. The action was not effective in shutting down "illegal" renters but it has raised the level of animosity toward the municipality.

And after six years of chasing this TA animal the environment has changed. The Internet now puts individual property owners and international hotel chains on nearly even footing when it comes to reaching potential customers. Despite the Miller/Rivera ruling, there are still some people who believe that property ownership gives them the right to rent that property as they please. And of course property values have climbed to ridiculous levels in the past six years.

This last point is particularly relevant to the municipality’s current proposal to enforce its zoning bylaws. In addition to having TA zoning, the municipality is suggesting each TA property should have a business licence. The municipality’s legal advisers say this will simplify the process of getting an injunction against property owners engaged in "illegal" rentals.

The owners of TA-zoned properties, most of whom seem to be lawyers, said Saturday that the municipality already has the legal "hammer" to crack down (the Miller/Rivera decision) and that a business licensing system would draw the attention of the B.C. Assessment Authority and Revenue Canada and could result in their property taxes tripling.

So the situation after six years is: the demand for rental homes appears to be stronger than ever; property values continue to rise and provincial and federal revenue ministries have their eye on Whistler; there isn’t much faith or trust in the municipality’s handling of the TA issue, and even some of those operators who support the municipality’s efforts are considered suspect by other TA operators.

The distrust and animosity is building rather than dissipating. And a solution still does not appear to be near at hand.