End of Airbnb in Walla Walla

Kate Grumbles, News Editor

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“This is a witch hunt. Council is currently going against the better advice of Chamber of Commerce, against the better advice of the Walla Walla Association of Realtors, against the better advice of staff. I’m almost speechless,” says Sam Galano, Walla Wallan and owner of a small portfolio of short term rentals, speaking about the recent vote to ban this type of business.

This past Wednesday, Nov. 1, Walla Walla City Council voted to ban any future non-owner occupied short term rentals, often run through companies like Airbnb or VRBO.

The City Council met in the Walla Walla Public Library, the meeting lasting over four hours with at least two being devoted to the issue of short term rentals. The Walla Walla community filled the library, ready to express their varying opinions about the future of short term rentals in their neighborhoods. Walla Walla Mayor, Allen Pomeraning prefaced the period of public comment starting at 7 p.m., “Regardless of what happens tonight, we do take a break at 9 o’clock.”

This vote has been a long time coming in Walla Walla, as the city’s Planning Commission began looking into options for how to regulate short term rentals almost two years ago in 2016 as companies like Airbnb began to grow in popularity. Currently, there are around 120 short term rentals registered in Walla Walla.

Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of the city’s Development Services, presented the council with two options for the regulation of non-owner occupied short term rentals, termed “Type 2” rentals. The alternatives offered were to allow Type 2 rentals with more regulation and a registration process, or ban any future Type 2 rentals that haven’t already registered by November 9 of this year. The council chose to vote for the second alternative, banning any future Type 2 rentals, defined by Chamberlain as “a short term rental at a dwelling that is not the owner’s principal residence.”

This decision marks the end of a long discussion in the Walla Walla community about the merits of these Type 2 rentals. One of the most common reasons for community members to support a ban was the impact on their neighborhoods.

Sandra Cannon, community member present at the meeting, emphasized the lack of community support in an area populated by short term renters.

“I would like the city council to consider that short term rentals greatly affect our social and emergency services. We have to think beyond the financial gain, both in taxes for the city and for the owners of the short term rentals,” Cannon said. “If we have a lot of empty houses in a small area, there’s no resilience in that neighborhood in times of crisis.”

Photo by Taj Howe

Nobert Rossi, next door neighbor to a short term rental, questioned the council’s commitment to protecting the well being of neighborhoods in Walla Walla.

“The choice is pretty clear, do you side with the residents who live, eat, and work here or do you side with the profiteers who sacrifice family homes for big bucks?” Rossi said.

Dick Morgan, one of the two members of the Walla Walla City Council who voted to oppose the ban, expressed his desire for more options than to completely ban or allow Type 2 rentals. “A reasonable alternative, in my opinion, would be to regulate the density of how many VRBOs could be in a given zone … that would greatly diminish concerns and eliminate oversaturation in any neighborhood,” Morgan said.

Morgan also mentioned that the concerns about the neighborhood disruptions caused by Type 2 rentals may have been overemphasized.

“Frankly, I felt the objections were often exaggerated. Council asked for police reports of complaints stemming from [short term rental] addresses and there were none. Ever,” Morgan said.

While there was strong support for the new ban, many community members feel that short term rentals have something to offer Walla Walla.

Kathryn Stueckle, owner of a short term rental, explained the benefits she sees it bringing to Walla Walla.

“I understand that [short term] rentals are only six percent of the available accommodations in the Walla Walla area, but they do represent people who are invested in the welfare of the community,” Stueckle said. “Our guests eat at local restaurants, they shop at the local stores, and contribute to the financial well being of the community.”

While the guests of short term rentals are certainly a presence in Walla Walla during their stay, it was the community members who made up the substantial crowd at the library this past Wednesday.

Read the City of Walla Walla’s FAQ on the topic.

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