New absentee-owner properties will be banned for use as short-term rentals under an ordinance a divided Walla Walla City Council adopted at a jam-packed meeting Wednesday.

The ordinance, which passed 5-2 with Council members Steve Moss and Dick Morgan opposed, puts a halt to the proliferation in the city of new short-term rentals whose owners inhabit them for fewer than 275 days per calendar year and rent them out for up to 29 days at a time.

Owners who register their rentals as businesses before Nov. 9 and show that they have paid applicable taxes while operating their rental, however, may continue operating their property as a short-term rental until it is sold.

After that, new owners may continue to operate those so-called "Type
2" properties — also known as vacation rentals by owners — as
short-term rentals, or revert them back to owner-occupied residences
or other permitted use.
Language to ban continued use of a sold property as a VRBO was struck
from an earlier ordinance proposal because it would infringe on
Washington case law that says the right to use property for a specific
legal purpose goes with the property when it is sold.

The decision comes on the heels of more than two years of debate and aims to bring a quick end to the increase in VRBOs.

The issue has divided the city into two main camps, with one side taking a pro-business viewpoint in wanting the rentals to be available to tourists.

Opponents argued that VRBOs were disruptive in residential neighborhoods and took away business from the city’s hotels and motels, which are zoned, taxed and must meet codes for safety and other requirements.

At least one person changed his mind during the numerous discussions and hearings over the long debate: Mayor Allen Pomraning.

In the past, Pomraning was wary of supporting regulations or a ban on rentals because of his support of property rights.

At Wednesday’s meeting he said he had come to believe the ban would protect the property rights of people who buy homes in residential neighborhoods without anticipating other homes are being used as VRBOs.

“I have evolved over the last two years,” Pomraning said. “Private property rights are not just for the investor ... Private property rights include all the people who currently own homes.”

Council members Barbara Clark, Jim Barrow and Tom Scribner expressed similar view in joining Pomraning in the vote to ban the rentals.

The vote came after nearly two hours of public comment, during which residents and representatives of other interested parties weighed in on both sides.

Barlow Corkrum, who has appeared regularly at Council meetings to advocate for a ban, said the debate was “really very simple.”

“In this room tonight, there are two groups of people,” he said. “There are the investors, and then there are the homeowners who actually live here. We also invested in our homes, but we also work here, we start businesses here, we go out to dinner here, we send our kids to school, we go to church, we spend almost every dime we make here in this community.”

Representatives of business associations also weighed in.

Brian Duvall, the president of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, spoke from his experience in using a short-term rental while he and his wife look for a permanent residence. He said a ban would severely damage the city’s ability to fill what he saw as a clear need for short-term rental housing.

Spokane resident Tobby Hatley of the Washington Hospitality Association argued for the creation of regulations on VRBOs, if not an all-out ban.

Short-term rental owners and operators were among those most fervently opposed to the ban, though many said they would favor regulations.

“The Council is currently going against the better advice of the Chamber of Commerce, against the better advice of the Walla Walla Association of Realtors, against the better advice of staff,” short-term rental manager Sam Galano said.

Galano owns Gala Realty Group, which currently lists seven rental properties on Airbnb, five of which are within the city limits. Two of his clients, he said, intended to sue the city if it passed the ban.

City Attorney Tim Donaldson, when asked by Council about the viability of those potential suits, was confident the city would prevail.

With short-term rental owners now having only a week to meet a Nov. 9 deadline to register as businesses and pay applicable taxes Scribner asked city Development Services Director Elizabeth Chamberlain about her department’s capability to handle a potential high volume of applications.

“Given our other permits that are in for review, that would be a pretty heavy lift, to have everything done within a week,” she said, adding that “it’s hard to anticipate how many will be coming in between now and that date.”

Image: Karen via Flickr; unedited

​Andy Monserud can be reached at andymonserud@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.