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Short-term rentals | Task force reaches consensus on grandfathering, caps and a lottery | County sets June 15 public hearing on proposed code

WENATCHEE — Existing short-term rentals in Chelan County would be grandfathered in and new rentals in some areas would be capped, with a lottery to award permits when applications exceed the limit.

Those are some of the details in the county’s latest draft short-term rental code based on recommendations by the nine-member Chelan County Short-Term Rental Task Force. The proposed code will be presented to the public June 15 for comment.

The ad hoc committee of short-term rental owners, neighborhood residents, housing affordability champions and current and former planning commission members was appointed in January to help find a way forward in the two-plus-year effort to develop short-term rental regulations.

The idea was to establish rules to help not only with neighborhood complaints of noise, trash and parking at houses rented out for 30 days or less, but to address affordable housing concerns. The commercial ventures, some argued, cut into available housing and push up home prices.

Settling on the rules to fix the problem, though, proved difficult. County commissioners, after hearing hours of heated public testimony from short-term rental owners on one side and neighbors on the other, asked the planning commission to restart the process three times in the span of a couple years.

In December, after another round of public hearings and debate on how to fairly phase out some existing rentals, among other things, Jim Brown, the county’s planning director, proposed bringing together representatives from all sides to find common ground.

The commission appointed the task force members who met six times from Feb. 22 through April 23. Their charge, according to the report presented to county commissioners on May 7, was to “listen, engage and seek consensus” on how best “to allow property owner income while protecting the character of residential communities across the county.”

The task force was asked to answer six questions ranging from where short-term rentals should be allowed to how to deal with existing rentals and how to decide on a cap.

Included in the proposal is a limit — 6% of the total housing stock in an area identified by zip code — on non-owner occupied rentals in most areas of the county. The rules in Manson and Peshastin would be different, following previously approved regulations for each area. The cap in the Manson area would be 9%, while in Peshastin, short-term rentals would not be allowed at all. The 98826 zip code in Leavenworth would be divided into three sub-areas — Leavenworth, Plain and Lake Wenatchee — each with its own 6% cap. The urban growth areas around Cashmere, Chelan, Entiat, Leavenworth and Wenatchee would follow those cities’ rules.

In areas where the number of short-term rentals exceeds the cap, the current permits would be grandfathered in and allowed to continue operating while offering the ability to sell the property as a short-term rental once in the span of five years. No new permits would be issued until the number of rentals dropped below the capacity limit and then would be issued based on a waiting list or lottery system, depending on the number of applications.

The proposed code also sets minimum lot sizes and distance requirements for non-owner occupied rentals and requires facilities for larger groups (more than 12 total guests) to acquire conditional use permits in some zones.

The county’s community development staff worked the task force’s recommendations into the draft code that was reviewed by commissioners Tuesday during a workshop. Another workshop is scheduled Monday before it goes to the June 15 public hearing.

Copies of the task force report and the proposed draft code are now available — for viewing and comment — on the county’s website at wwrld.us/rentalspage. Details of the public hearing will be listed there as well.

The task force report also includes statements from members outlining some of the issues they did not have time to address in full including noise, enforcement, septic and water efficiency concerns.

The commission expects to adopt a final code before the end of the year, according to the report. The county currently has a year-long moratorium on new short-term rentals that runs through Aug. 25.

Live music is back: Musicians and venues are more than ready

WENATCHEE — A stir-crazy post-vaccination rush may be on the horizon as venues in the Wenatchee Valley expect a surge in visitors.

The increase would be good news for many North Central Washington musicians who now have a chance to book shows throughout the summer after limited opportunities in 2020.

People have been craving community interaction, said Don Wood, owner of Icicle Ridge Winery. The winery has two Leavenworth locations visitors can stop at, as well as a vineyard and outdoor venue located in Peshastin. Their yearly live music series is set to start Fridays in July and go through August.

Outdoor venues are going to get a lot of attention and be popular this summer, he said. People feel a bit more safe in an outdoor environment.

Live music shows at the winery had to be canceled last summer due to COVID-19 and now all those musicians are very excited to be coming back, he said.

“We believe that the foot traffic in Leavenworth is going to be as strong as ever, maybe even stronger,” he said. The increase in visitors to Leavenworth has been driving more people to the winery. Wood said he is looking forward to welcoming lots of people, “it’s going to be great.”

The same goes for Plain Cellars, which has filled up its summer music schedule.

People are “without question” pent up and want to get back to normal, said Bob Sage, owner and winemaker at Plain Cellars.

Plain Cellars runs a tasting room in Leavenworth during the week and opens its venue space in Plain on weekends.

Last summer was so busy “it was nuts,” he said. The winery made more revenue in 2020 than it did in 2019, even accounting for a three-month closure.

Plain Cellars this year has brought in a food truck, A Taste Plain, to cater at events. Behind the winery is a field with a “bring your own chairs” area for people to enjoy the wine and music, he said.

There is very much a demand for people to get out and enjoy themselves, he said.

Music artists are also starting to get booked for summer gigs as more and more venues open and prepare for the season.

“It’s all coming back around again,” said Darnell Scott, a Wenatchee blues singer and guitarist. “Things are starting to get back to normal.”

Scott plays solo and with a band across North Central Washington. He’s feeling pretty optimistic about live music this summer. “Things are changing,” he said. “Right now, it’s changed for the better.”

There are larger crowds than before because many are starved to get out, he said. People want music and they want to be entertained.

“I’m fired up, I’m eager to play,” he said.

Leavenworth music artist Hans Hessburg still has a little bit more waiting to do before the band he is in, Dragged Under, can start playing at events. Until then, Hessburg is playing solo in the Wenatchee Valley.

Seattle-based Dragged Under was set to tour nationally in 2020 until COVID-19 pushed the dates out to 2022. Shows and previous plans for the band have all been pushed back, he said.

Being sidelined for a year from the live music scene “has been kind of a ‘blurse’ … a blessing and a course,” he said. Being off the road and out of work was bad, but it has also been great to hunker down and write a second album, he said.

Dragged Under is scheduled to start touring in August and September. “We’re pretty stoked, he said.” It has been more than a year since playing on a stage together.

“If a giant meteor doesn’t hit, then we’re set,” he said.

Is a YouTuber part of the news media? State high court gives guidance in recent ruling

OLYMPIA — The case of a man with a YouTube channel who sought records from Pierce County after a confrontation at the courthouse has prompted a Washington State Supreme Court opinion regarding the definition of “news media.”

The man, Brian Green, sought public records for his Libertys Champion YouTube channel, including photos and birth dates of jail workers and sheriff’s deputies on duty at the time of the confrontation. Such photos and birth dates are exempt from public disclosure under state law, but journalists are entitled to them.

Green sued Pierce County for the records, and Thurston County Superior Court Judge Christopher Lanese found that Green and his YouTube channel count as “new media.” Pierce County appealed.

The high court ruling reversed Lanese’s decision.

“We conclude that the statutory definition of ‘news media’ requires an entity with a legal identity separate from the individual,” Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote for the majority in the 7-2 opinion Thursday. “Here, Brian Green has not proved that he or the Libertys Champion YouTube channel meets the statutory definition of ‘news media,’ and, thus, he is not entitled to the exempt records.”

The opinion also acknowledged that the media landscape has drastically changed since the state law defining news media was written 14 years ago.

“The manner in which we access news today is vastly different from how we did it in 2007, and this statutory definition may not comport with the current intersection of social media and the news,” Montoya-Lewis wrote. “However, the legislature, not the court, is responsible for enacting statutes, and this court is bound by the statute’s unambiguous language.”

Justices Steven González, Charles Johnson, Barbara Madsen, Susan Owens, Debra Stephens and Mary Yu signed the opinion.

Court records give this account of the public records dispute:

Green and another person went to the County-City Building on Nov. 26, 2014 in downtown Tacoma to pay a parking ticket and to file something.

At security a guard asked to search the other person’s bag, and that person refused, then started taking video when a sheriff’s deputy arrived.

The deputy gave Green and the other person two options to avoid a bag search: leave with the bag or go into the courthouse without it. They refused, arguing that the County-City Building is public, and the person with the bag argued his right to privacy was being violated.

“The conversation escalated, and the deputy asked the men to leave,” Montoya-Lewis wrote. “When Green stood too close to him, the deputy shoved Green and caused him to fall backward onto the floor. The deputy arrested Green for criminal obstruction and took him to jail.”

He was released the next day, and the Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charge.

It was several years later that Green requested records from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, asking for photos, birth dates, ranks, positions, badge numbers, hiring dates and ID badges for detention center personnel, jail personnel and “deputies on duty Nov. 26 and 27, 2014.”

He sent his request from his band’s email address, and referred to himself as an “Investigative Journalist” in the email signature.

The agency responded with 11 pages of records but said photos and dates of birth were exempt from disclosure.

Green argued he was entitled to those records because he met the definition of “news media” under state law. He said he covers local court cases on his channel, and that the channel has about 6,000 subscribers.

The trial court sided with Green and “concluded that the statutory definition of ‘news media’ does not require a specific corporate form or financial profit,” Montoya-Lewis wrote. “It also noted that the Libertys Champion YouTube channel has been in existence for several years and publishes videos approximately every week with the purpose of gathering and disseminating news.”

The Supreme Court majority reversed the trial court’s decision and found Green and his YouTube channel don’t qualify as “news media” under the law.

Justices G. Helen Whitener and Sheryl Gordon McCloud dissented.

“From the perspective of the First Amendment, distinguishing different news media based on size or organizational structure or status as a legal entity is disfavored, if not outright impermissible,” Whitener wrote. “To hold that (the state law) provides otherwise, as the majority does, risks construing the statute in an unconstitutional manner, a result we must avoid.”

She wrote that all Green would have to do to qualify, given the majority’s interpretation of the law, is to register a limited liability company.

“If the legislature wanted to prevent the release of this information, it is well within their power to draft a bill that would do so,” Whitener wrote. “But the law as it stands requires the release of this information due to Libertys Champion’s status as news media.”

The First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School, Pierce County Corrections Guild, Washington State Association of Broadcasters, Radio Television Digital News Association, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington filed briefs in the case.

Some, including the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, raised concerns about the potential implications of the case for the state’s shield law, which protects journalists from being compelled to testify, identity sources or turn over notes or other information from their news gathering.

“This case is the first to interpret the shield law’s definition of news media,” their brief argued. “There is a danger of stretching the definition so far as to jeopardize the law’s continued existence. If the term ‘news media’ includes everyone posting commentary online or self-identifying as journalists, the potential impact on the justice system is significant.”

It went on to say: “While Allied Daily Newspapers supports the broadest possible access to government records, extending the shield law to any self-proclaimed journalist is a risky way to accomplish that.”

'A huge step' | Health officials excited by funds allocated to public health

WENATCHEE — Health officials at the Chelan-Douglas Health District say they are encouraged by the more than $174 million allocated to public health services in the state’s 2021-2023 operating budget.

These funds may allow the health district to hire more staff, revamp IT systems, and fund outreach into rural communities, according to Dan Sutton, Douglas County commissioner and health board chair.

Dan Sutton

Chelan-Douglas Board of Health chairman

“I am very pleased that the [state is] taking this very seriously,” Sutton said. “That’s a significant amount of money.”

Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

In Washington, public health has been poorly funded for a long period of time, operating at a deficit for the last 15 years, according to Luke Davies, health administrator for the health district.

The Chelan-Douglas Health District used to have up to 60 employees, and as COVID-19 struck, was operating below normal staffing levels with 48 employees due to budget constraints, Davies said.

At the Chelan-Douglas Health District, applications are still open for an accountant, a public health nurse, and an associate administrator among others, according to the health district website.

Sutton also said that the Chelan-Douglas Health District is not alone. Every health district and health department in the state has serious needs like staff funding and replacing old equipment like revamping their IT systems, he said.

“The curse of public health is that when we’re doing our job everybody is healthy and they’re wondering, ‘Hey, why are we paying you guys?’” Davies said. “And a pandemic hits and they’re like, ‘Right, we should totally fund you.’”

On May 18, the governor signed a two-year operating budget that allocated about $175 million for “foundational public health services.”

Davies said foundational public health refers to core services the state Department of Health is supposed to provide — like access to healthcare and environmental health.

A statewide foundational public health committee will be convening to clearly define where the funding will go and what it can be used for, according to Davies.

“A lot of those funds will come directly to local health jurisdictions and be split amongst them for different projects, whether it’s supporting epidemiology or helping systems create more access in rural areas, or even equity issues,” Davies said.

The state budget appropriated a bit over $61 million for the fiscal year of 2022, more than 10 times the $5 million amount allocated in 2020 to foundational public health services

“It’s a huge step,” Davies said. “The state’s recognizing the shortfalls and the need to invest in our systems to build resilient communities and resilient interventions.

The state budget made additional allocations to the COVID-19 public health response, approximately $1.1 billion for the next two years.

The largest sum, $900 million, is going to contact tracing and COVID-19 testing for the next two years. The other $200 million is going to vaccine distribution and the COVID-19 workforce.

COVID-19 is here to stay, Sutton said. “It will very likely behave as a seasonal disease and that’s part of the funding.” With new COVID-19 variants continue to appear and spread, Sutton said he is happy to see continued funding for this issue.

But it would not be the first time funding to public health increased due to a crisis, according to Sutton. The SARS and H1N1 pandemics prompted temporary increases in funding, but as time goes on, people lose focus, he said.

It would be shame to fall into old habits, Sutton said, but he is confident that nobody will let that happen anytime soon.