Revelstoke short-term rental policy heads to resident feedback

Significant tweaks by council to proposed direction on short-term rentals policy makes implications challenging to assess at this point. A promised upcoming engagement process will allow everyday residents an opportunity to weigh in on a process that has so far been dominated by vacation-rental and traditional accommodation industry representatives.

File photo: Three heritage homes in the downtown Revelstoke area. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountianeer Magazine

This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s July 2021 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:

Revelstoke’s delayed short-term rentals policy review, which has been an open question since 2016 when the city stopped processing new applications under its spot-zoning system, is back in motion after several months of delay.

Currently, there are some vacation rentals legally zoned under the now-discontinued spot-zoning bylaw, which capped to total number of units at 125. Most short-term rentals in single-family homes are not legally zoned, and the solution to the issue has vexed the city for over a decade.

At two city meetings February, staff unveiled proposed policy changes that included allowing short-term rentals in every single-family home, with requirements for an operator on-site or on call. Staff indicated its plan to proceed to public input shortly thereafter, but after a cool reception from some council members, and requests for changes in February, there came a long pause.

Then at the June 10 council meeting, staff presented an 11-page summary report, which detailed the complex history of the short-term rental bylaw situation, including a thicket of council resolutions dating back over five years.

At the meeting, staff asked council for direction on a list of open-ended questions. In essence, after the initial feedback from council in February, staff said they didn’t have good direction from council on what path to take with the short-term rentals policy.

The discussion that focused on single-family homes and not commercially zoned short-term rentals — which staff said will be dealt with later — resulted in two significant resolutions from council. One was to cap the number of short-term rentals at 300 units (not including short-term rentals in commercial or strata zones), which, according to a June 8 staff report, would make available an additional 260 new short-term rental business licenses available once existing legal short-term rentals are subtracted. Staff estimated the 300-unit cap would represent about 13% of the total of 2009 single-family dwellings in Revelstoke.

A second resolution limited short-term rentals to secondary suites only, something that staff recommended against. The change would disqualify many existing illegal vacation rentals, including whole-home rentals, from participating in the scheme.

Staff noted in a June 8 report that the provincial taxation system does not yet account for short-term rentals in residential zones, saying that until that is changed, they are charged residential taxation. There was discussion of business fees, but the details haven’t been finalized.

The next step is for staff to complete bylaw changes and present them to council for consideration of first reading, followed by a public engagement process likely on the city’s ‘talk revelstoke’ website, likely in the coming month or two.

Analysis: With short-term rentals policy, details matter

With short-term rentals policy, the devil, as they say, is in the details. One small tweak to the policy, such as restricting short-term rentals to secondary suites only, can change the practical reality of the policy dramatically. To date, staff has presented suggested tweaks and changes to the existing patchwork of policies that govern short-term rentals, some of which have met with resistance from council. However, so far, the new short-term rental policy hasn’t been compiled into a digestible package that residents can assess. The next step in the process is to compile the changes into a proposed package of bylaw amendments, then put that out for a public engagement process on the city’s new engagement website.

There are many open-ended questions about the policy. Staff has proposed making changes to the ticketing system, including increasing fines for illegal rentals to $1,000 per day, but, following a decade of inaction on hundreds of illegal vacation rentals in town, the city will need to make the case that its new system will work. After all, in September 2016, council requested staff actively enforce illegal vacation rentals (as opposed to complaints-based enforcement) but that hasn’t really happened and the number of illegal rentals has only grown — currently staff estimate there are 328 short-term rentals in single-family residences alone, including legal and illegal ones.

Also of note is recent staff reports suggesting it will allow carriage and secondary buildings on all single-family properties, but indicating their policy direction is that short-term rentals not be allowed in the secondary dwellings. Will both be clarified before council makes a decision?

Changes, such as only allowing short-term rentals only in secondary suites, would disqualify many of the existing illegal whole-home rentals, meaning it could dramatically shift the location of vacation rentals — if you don’t have one on your block, you just might soon.

The city has struggled to get engagement through its engagement website, getting only 66 mostly short, one-off comments on the latest stage of the Official Community Plan consultation, despite budgeting tens of thousands of dollars and dedicating contractors to drum up interest in an ongoing attempt to meet consultation targets required by provincial authorities when re-doing an official community plan.

Since the city’s focus groups have been dominated by accommodation interests, including short-term rental providers and organizers, the effectiveness of the engagement with all residents on the proposed plan will be a litmus test of the city’s desire and ability to engage with residents. The short-term rental issue intermingles with critical issues for Revelstoke including housing availability and affordability, rental availability, labour availability, neighbourhood character, taxation fairness, quality of life, and the character of the community now and in the future.

It seems pretty certain that those in the accommodation industry set to gain or lose from the changes – hoteliers or AirBNBers — will comment, but will everyday residents be aware of their opportunity to weigh in?