(KCAW/Berett Wilber)

The Sitka Assembly will not issue a moratorium on short-term rental permits after all. When the assembly met on Tuesday (3-22-22) it narrowly voted down a measure that would have prohibited new permits in residential zones for one year.

In city code, a short term rental is any property rented for 14 days or less. Often, but not always, they’re rented out through online platforms like VRBO or AirBnB. In order to operate a short-term rental in a home or apartment building in a residential zone, the owner needs a ‘conditional use permit’ from the city’s planning department. The assembly was considering prohibiting new permit approvals for one year, beginning this April. 

Randy Hughey said he didn’t think the data supported a moratorium. While the number of permitted short term rentals has more than doubled since 2017, Hughey pointed out that applications are down slightly since 2020. He said while he’s not generally a fan of STRs, there are good reasons Sitkans might pursue them. 

“Things such as ‘We can’t afford to buy this house without doing it. But we need a place for grandma and grandpa to stay when they come to the summer so that they can be with the grandkids’…Or people who have itinerant fishing lifestyles and their property is sitting vacant, and they can rent it, right?” Hughey said. “Those aren’t just trying to make more money out of the property. They are compelling lifestyle reasons, which I think matter.” 

Hughey said he’d rather see the assembly consider options that would restrict short term rentals without stopping them cold. 

Wendy Alderson is a member of the Planning Commission. Speaking as an individual, she said they did see a lull in short term rental applications during COVID. Alderson believes the lull is over. They’d approved six new permits over their last three meetings. Anticipating more applications as Sitka’s tourism industry grows, Alderson urged the assembly to approve the temporary moratorium.

“Currently, there is very little criteria for short term rentals in residential areas,” Alderson said. “If a short term rental request meets the minimum criteria, the Planning Commission must approve it. This means the Planning Commission has no tools with which to examine each application individually.”

Sponsors Kevin Knox and Kevin Mosher both hoped that temporarily curbing those permits would be a first step toward addressing Sitka’s affordable housing challenges. Mosher said if the moratorium was approved, they would look to create a subcommittee or working group that would be tasked with exploring possible regulations for short term rentals in Sitka. 

“I believe that with our short, very small stock of properties, available properties, even one being taken off the market for a long-term rental for short-term is a hit to locals who need a place to live,” Mosher said. “So this is a comprehensive thing. So if we do this, we’re just asking for a little bit of time to to work together with the community and the Planning Commission. To come up with some ideas for solving this.” 

While most of the assembly agreed that action on affordable housing is needed, not all agreed that the moratorium was the right step forward. Dave Miller said he was conflicted, and still didn’t know how he would vote.

“I’ve read every email three times,” Miller said. “Man, I’ve put more time into this, I wake up in the middle of the night and read these emails, just because I want to do the right thing. And I’m still not exactly sure what that is.”

And Crystal Duncan said she would support a community-driven plan to address Sitka’s housing shortage. But on the moratorium she was a no vote.  

“I see the passion in this room,” Duncan said. “Everybody’s dealing with housing as a real issue here in Sitka, but it’s more complicated and extensive than just short-term units.”

Kevin Knox asked that fellow assembly members reconsider. While imperfect, he thought the moratorium would hold the assembly’s feet to the fire with an April 2023 deadline. But if it didn’t pass, he hoped they could quickly pivot.

“I feel a little like, Kevin [Mosher] stated it earlier, when the solution isn’t perfect, we throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “I really do hope we come forward with some solid solutions, and quickly. Not un-thoughtfully, but quickly.” 

The ordinance failed on a 3-4 vote with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz and members Thor Christianson, Crystal Duncan, and Dave Miller voting against.