By editorial board • 

Vacation rentals a good thing if concentration kept in check

“Too much of a good thing, if it’s not regulated, is going to be a problem,” former city librarian Jill Poyer said at a planning commission meeting five years ago.

She was referring to McMinnville’s growing concentration of vacation rentals, certifying its rapidly rising status as a destination point for Wine Country tourism. It’s an issue the planning commission and city council spent a lot of time on in 2017 and 2018, and are now in the process of revisiting.

Our community could spend hours debating how much is too much, as the two city bodies could readily attest.

But there is no question about the rising tide of the vacation rental business — across the country, state, county, region and city, with some more tourist-oriented locations getting hit by far the hardest. There may or may not be too many, but there are certainly more — a great deal more.

In 2004, a state tourism guide purported to list all the vacation rentals in Oregon and came up with 400 of them.

In 2008, when the city enacted its initial regulator ordinance, McMinnville counted just two. While prolific in coastal communities like Cannon Beach, and inland tourist destinations like Bend and Ashland, they were scarce in valley communities like McMinnville.

The city had only six vacation rentals on the books in 2012. But by the time the issue burst back into the local limelight five years later, the legal tally was up to 35, and critics suggested up to twice that many might be operating outside the city’s regulatory framework. Clearly, the business had caught fire.

In its original ordinance, McMinnville required 660 feet of separation between them, limiting the maximum concentration to about one every three blocks. It eliminated that buffer in 2012, but reinstated it in 2018 at 200 feet, designed to limit the maximum concentration to one per block.

Upon revisiting the issue, the planning commission decided earlier this month to recommend the city council bump the buffer to 500 feet. The council is expected to take up that recommendation in mid-January.

The staff worked up maps depicting the impact of buffers of 200, 400 and 600 feet. Commissioner Dan Tucholsky came up with the 500-foot compromise after concluding 600 feet was an unreasonable stretch, and we tend to agree.

Too much of a good thing may be in the eye of the beholder, and thus differ widely. Here are some of the factors we weighed:

The positives to a robust vacation rental supply are largely economic. But for a town as tourist-dependent as ours, they are by no means insignificant.

Most are locally owned, so the revenue they generate ripples all through the economy, including the parts with no direct relationship to tourism. And that local ownership tends to ensure serious maintenance and upkeep, as does the highly competitive nature of the industry.

On the flip side, vacation rentals can become ghostly zombie houses outside the tourist season.

At worst, that can prove an invitation for theft, vandalism and neglect. At best, it can sap some of the vibrancy and vitality marking a healthy, well-networked neighborhood.

During the season, heavy tourist use can raise issues of noise, traffic and boisterous behavior. Good landlords work to minimize bad behavior because it’s bad for business but aren’t always successful.

Finally, there’s the impact on the supply of single-family housing, particularly affordable single-family housing.

Communities with a tourism orientation already tend to suffer from inflated prices, and ours suffers from a serious homeless problem, which may be at least somewhat associated with the pricing problem. So it is incumbent to establish firm limits on vacation rental conversions.

The 35 vacation rentals on the books five years ago represented only a bit over one-half one percent of the city’s total housing inventory of 6,700 housing units.

We suspect we might have risen to a full percentage point by now, but that doesn’t remotely put us in a league with tourism industry leaders like Bend, Ashland and Cannon Beach. We are in no danger of being overrun with short-term visitors anytime soon.

The trick is keeping it that way. And limiting tourism rentals to roughly one per block, at an ultimate maximum, seems to us to offer the necessary assurance. We would, thus, urge the council to see the wisdom in the buffer recommended by the planning commission.

We are, of course, basing our thinking, as is the planning commission, on legal rentals. That puts the onus on city leaders to put the scofflaws out of business to the maximum extent possible, and to keep them out.


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