A Sitka resident asked the planning commission to consider allowing short term rentals and bed & breakfasts on boats, to create more bed space for tourists. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Sitka’s Planning Commission considered an idea on Tuesday (12-01-15) to allow short term vacation rentals and bed and breakfast establishments on anchored boats.

Downloadable audio.

Sitka’s zoning code only allows for a bed and breakfast and short term rentals to operate in a single dwelling or two-family home. In his written proposal to amend that zoning text, resident Tim Fulton wondered if that restriction could be loosened. He proposed that hosting travelers on boats is already a growing niche in the travel market and as Sitka is short on bed space, this was a great time to get involved.

Senior planner Mike Scarcelli read a letter on his behalf, while Fulton attended the Sitka School Board meeting. In it, he said, “I have investors who are interested in part for the contribution it could make to the local economy. I believe that this idea is forthcoming and right now you have an opportunity to address it in a positive way.”

Fulton is particularly interested in attracting visitors through the lodging website, airbnb. Alaska has two airbnb listings for moored boats: one on a sailboat in Valdez and another on a three deck vessel in Homer. In his written proposal, Fulton mentioned how television shows like the Deadliest Catch are fueling fascination with Alaskan fishing. He wrote that spending a night on a boat could be “a dream come true” for travelers.

At the meeting, harbor staff praised the idea for its creativity, but had three big concerns: traffic in the harbor, infrastructure damage, and sanitation.

Harbormaster Stan Eliason worried about the environmental impacts, should tourists dump sewage overboard. He speculated the department could require boats to pump out once a month, but that would be a lot of work to enforce. “I’m afraid that this could morph over into the other harbor users, such as live aboards and onto our regular harbor users, which would create a management nightmare for my department. I just don’t the man power to do this,” Eliason said.

The harbor qualifies as land in the public zone, which means a zone text change would allow airbnb to operate on all public lands. Planning commission member Darryl Windsor raised an eyebrow over this detail. He asked Scarcelli, “When you say public lands, does that mean this would open it up to someone parking an RV out at the shooting range and rent it out as an airbnb?”

The short answer is yes and the potential for broad impacts seemed to signal the death knell for this idea. After 15 minutes of deliberation, the commission voted down the proposed change.