Visitors are an increasing phenomena in the San Juan Islands. Given the challenges and time factors involved in getting to the islands, most visitors spend at least one night here. Visitor accommodations thus have a huge impact on the number of visitors. There are many kinds of accommodations. A growing number of visitors are staying in “Airbnb” type accommodations; these types of lodging accommodations are required to have county-approved Vacation Rental Permits. The chart to the right shows the increase in the number of Vacation Rental Permits (VRP) during the period 1990-2017. The chart below shows the post-recession trend.
During this ~ 30 year period 1050 vacation rental permits were issued. Of these, 967 were approved.
In 2018 San Juan County approved modifications to the VRP regulations in order to address a growing series of complaints about noise, garbage, traffic, dogs, etc. that reflected a growing and undesirable impact of more visitors (quantity) and different visitor expectations and behavior (quality). While the updated regulations are an attempt to reduce host, visitor and neighbor challenges, they do not restrict the number of VRPs that may be issued, either by island or by location on island (rural, waterfront, activity center, etc.).
Visitor impacts are not reviewed or part of the GMA CP update process. San Juan County has not offered the residents (read: voters) a thoughtful, comprehensive and action-oriented opportunity to seriously discuss the clearly-growing challenges and impacts of visitors and the options available to manage these impacts consistent with a vision statement that calls for a rural, slow, quiet, “isolated nature” that is the reason most residents have moved here and wish to stay here.
The “Nantucket Study”, done for SJC in 2000, is neither mentioned nor available on the county’s web site. You can read it at
As noted in the conclusions section of the cover letter to the study, SJC was (in 2000) considered exactly on track to be like other resort communities like Nantucket and Aspen. Just 20 years behind. It is now (2019) almost 20 years after the study was done. None of the recommendations of the study were ever discussed much less implemented.
Visitors do not come here to be in crowds; their experience is contingent on the consistency of individual and organizational marketing with on-the-ground reality; residents are supposedly selling tranquility, rural beauty, small scale, community, yet these qualities degrade as the visitor population and undesirable behavior increases. By the undiscussed and unregulated privatization of public assets, residents and decision makers are killing the goose that lays the golden egg. This hurts everyone: locals, part time property owners and visitors alike.
Without a comprehensive conversation and the will to change our market-driven impulses, residents are in a race to the bottom, a consequence of collective failure to discuss and impose limits on the number of visitors served. This failure has and will continue to impoverish us economically, culturally and environmentally.
San Juan County should not be “for sale”. It should not be a vehicle for privatizing public assets, certainly not without serious and considerable public discussion.
Resident (read: voter) silence reinforces the current leadership vacuum where no, or the least possible, action has been and will be taken to address, much less engage in, the tough conversations that will reverse the Tragedy of the Commons (https://www.hendrix.edu/uploadedFiles/Admission/GarrettHardinArticle.pdf) occurring here.
A local bumpersticker reads “we do it different here than on the mainland”. Everyone, visitor or resident, is impacted as the commons is invaded: everyone’s pocketbook, sanity, community values and reason for being here are on the table.
The action step is simple: we all need to be at the table rather than on it.