Our home has been a peaceful place apart from all the stress during Covid. So many haven’t been able to see each other for a long time, and the sense of freedom and joy is just palpable as guests arrive. Two of our guests even tied the knot at a beautiful lakeside wedding in July. From formal to laidback, getting together with others is what our lake place is all about. But all of this nearly came to an end this spring.
Some of you already know what we’re referring to (if so, you can skip to the end), but if you don’t, read on about an exceptionally challenging situation that led us to the brink of having to close Blue Heron Lakehouse permanently. The storm we endured has a happy landing place, though, which sheds an entirely new light on the future of our home.
The story starts in 2010 when the City of Bellevue was alerted to supposed non-permitted remodeling. Brian invited city planning officials to the house to see for themselves that there was no merit to the charges, and the complaint was dismissed. At the meeting, Brian and the officials discussed the use of his home as a short-term rental and they assured him it was legal, since there was no city prohibition related to vacation rentals. They said they would only respond to noise or safety complaints.
More than a decade passed with no complaints. Then in March—three months into a rental to a very quiet couple—Brian received a notice from the City of Bellevue saying they had received two complaints that triggered a review of the house’s status as a vacation rental property. They came down like a sledgehammer, claiming it was a land-use violation and demanding that we cease operations and immediately cancel all reservations booked beyond April.
We were stunned. We could not fathom canceling guests who had looked forward to reunions after being separated for so long. This also represented a massive blow to us financially. Operating our home as a vacation rental is a significant source of our income, and we took a huge hit last year when all our 2020 guests cancelled due to Covid and we issued scores of refunds, though we were able to rebook some of the dates at a significantly reduced rate.
Standing by Our Guests
We were staring down a very uncertain future. Fearing the worst, we surrendered. We halted bookings, removed all online vacation rental listings and, after much deliberation, began transitioning to long-term rentals. However, the one thing we absolutely refused to do was cancel our guests’ upcoming stays.
The city ratcheted up the pressure, threatening legal action and a $5,000-a-day fine for noncompliance—10 times the municipal code’s maximum fines(!) Brian refused to yield, and stared the city down. In response, city officials scheduled a hearing, and Brian spent many long days in preparation.
The week before the hearing, we received a 100+ page staff report, and for the first time were allowed to see the two anonymous complaints that triggered the review. They were shocking fabrications. Among them: “Brian owns many other homes, also Airbnb’s,” “the owners market the home as a hotel,” “strangers at the house pose a danger in a neighborhood with lots of young children,” and “there have been large parties and lots of noise.”
What the report did not include was a key element: documentation of the 2010 meeting when the city assured Brian of the legality of operating a short-term rental. When Brian requested that these meeting notes be entered into the court record the city fired back, saying they could not procure the document in time for the hearing since it was archived. Brian suggested that the current enforcement official—the same person who wrote up the notice in 2010—simply retrieve it from her computer. Miraculously, the document appeared minutes later.
Up to the Brink
Then, at literally the final business hour on Friday before the Monday morning hearing, Brian received a phone message from the head of Bellevue’s Planning Department (the same individual who oversees Amazon’s and Microsoft’s 40-floor office buildings):
“I have to offer my sincere apology. We have done more research and looked at the historical records and have come to the conclusion that the use as proposed in the 2010 file was an allowed use at the time, therefore that does make it a legal nonconforming use.”
The case was dismissed.
After many exhausting, nerve-wracking months, the nightmare had come to an end. And there was an unexpected silver lining: No one, including the City of Bellevue, can ever again hassle us about our status as a vacation rental, in perpetuity. Given that the city changed the vacation rental code in 2015, our home is now likely one of the only legally operating vacation rentals in the city. As Brian says, “We now have a gold-plated seal of approval!”
Forging a New Future
As you can imagine, we feel a tremendous sense of relief, combined with renewed energy. All the dreams and plans we had for improvements that were put on hold are now back in play, and we’ve decided to move ahead on major renovations for next summer, implementing them in phases between guests. We’ll do a show-and-tell once we’re underway, but we’d like to give you a sneak peek. Here are some of the splashiest changes:
- A complete renovation of the Boathouse (indoors and out) will more effectively open it up to the outdoors. We’ll also add a custom-built bar and all-new cabinetry with an icemaker, beverage fridge, TV, sound system and stylish decor.
- A new, more stately entry, new siding and a more-refined exterior color palette will give the house a more contemporary look and inviting appearance.
- A new whole-house HVAC system with mini-splits means we’ll be able to offer integrated air-conditioning and heating throughout the seasons.
- A re-imagining of the function and flow of outdoor areas will lead to a larger flagstone dining terrace and thoughtful groupings of new, high-end outdoor furnishings and shade features, making it pleasant to spend more time outside on even the hottest days.
- A refreshed primary suite bathroom with a new vanity and fixtures will add contemporary appeal.
We Appreciate You!
After all we’ve been through, we’re excited to have the green light to continue to do what we love best. We’re especially grateful for the support of our repeat guests whose glowing reviews (and friendships!) make a big difference for us. Again, thank you for all your thoughtful support. We hope to see you in person at the lake house!