by Toby Cooper
Vacation Rental Work Group member
Through the magic of COVID-era Zoom, Lisa Byers sits comfortably in a virtual office, her persona reduced to the confines of a full-color square on a screen. Characteristically unruffled, she radiates diplomacy — refreshing in this age of uber-polarization — and percolates ideas.
The Lisa we know wears many hats, but none so propitiously in this election season as that of Vice-Chair of the Vacation Rental Work Group, the Eastsound-based vacation rental reform effort now into its second year of operation.
As I sat down with her to discuss post-election San Juan County issues, especially what to do about those pesky vacation rentals, I found her undeniably passionate, laser-focused on the search for rational solutions, and full of surprises.
TC. Lisa, in 2008 you ran for county council, losing to now-outgoing Councilmember Rick Hughes. What was going through your mind on Election Night 2020?
LB. It was not easy to lose in 2008, of course. I had put out a lot of effort. Maybe it was an itch I had to satisfy. But in the course of running, I came to recognize that I am more of a private person than I thought I was, and the level of exposure and intrusion into my private life was actually shocking to me. So, I felt then and recall now a sense of relief.
TC. Any regrets?
LB. None. One of my memories is of Mary Rivland, who worked on the campaign, who said to me, “Well, Lisa, the universe has something else in mind for you.” I came away refreshed, and now after nearly 25 years as Executive Director of the OPAL Community Land Trust, past President of the Orcas Food Co-op, past President of the National Community Land Trust Network, and more, I see how true that was.
TC. Today you have carved out the time to play an effective role in helping to lead the VRWG, which has become a leading community force. How have you achieved that balance?
LB. I have found that in my life, working full time, I have time for one significant volunteer effort. When I began to hear so many stories, anecdotally, about the erosion of our community cohesion and the evictions, I knew what I had to do.
People still come into the OPAL office desperately seeking housing, not because the owner of their rental has chosen to sell the property, but because they have simply decided to convert to VR. I saw it as a pattern and a threat to the quality of life. So I joined, knowing full well it would be a journey. I knew from the start that we were in mile-one of a marathon.
TC. But what is it about VRs that is so uniquely challenging?
LB. It is that loss of community. The islands have a long history of resorts with cabins and independent space and kitchens. We all enjoy that. But it has become too much of