Planning Commission to weigh in on vacation rentals

Planning Commission to weigh in on vacation rentals
City Council is tasking the Planning Commission with interpreting how the municipal code addresses short-term rentals. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — Despite opposition from more than three dozen property owners, council members at the Jan. 17 meeting voted 4-1 to have the Planning Commission to weigh in on short-term rentals.

Mayor Terry Sinnott opposed the move, saying he is “not quite convinced that getting a second opinion from the Planning Commission is valuable.”

“I understand why people want to do this but I am not in support of it,” he said. “I’m hoping for a regulatory solution to this problem.”

Rentals of 30 days or less have been occurring in the beach city for decades. The practice has increased significantly in the past few years, mostly because the proliferation of websites such as Airbnb and Vacation Rental by Owner have made bookings easier.

Short-term rental owners say a total ban would violate their property rights, deprive many of needed income and financially hurt local businesses and restaurants. Most support allowing them with commonsense regulations in place.

Opponents say the constant turnover is changing community character and causing an increase in traffic, parking, noise and trash problems. They want vacation rentals banned in residential zones.

City officials have been trying to find a solution for about two years. While doing so, a moratorium on any new units entering the market has been in place since April 2016.

“We’re at somewhat of an impasse in that the community’s split and historically the council’s been split,” Councilman Dwight Worden said. “There hasn’t really been agreement on what … our current rules allow.

“Our code has a process to break that kind of logjam,” added Worden, a former Del Mar city attorney. “It says when it is ambiguous the right process is to go to the Planning Commission first. They interpret it and then if there’s an appeal it comes here. I’m hoping this is the way we can break the logjam.

“Once we know what current rules provide we’ll … talk about what are our options,” he said. “It’s a bit frustrating … but I think we need to go in an orderly way and … take the next step, which is (let) the Planning Commission interpret the code.”

According to the staff report, Del Mar has a “permissive” zoning code, which means that unless a use is expressly allowed it is not legally permitted.

Currently, none of the zoning districts define or list short-term rental businesses as an allowed use.

The city’s position is that short-term rentals are not a permitted use in a residential zone and are not consistent with the Community Plan. However, the zoning code allows the rental of residential homes or parts of them, the staff report states.

Worden has proposed allowing owners in residential zones to rent out their homes a few times a year while they are on vacation. Most if not all council members oppose the purchase of property for the sole purpose of using it as a short-term rental.

City Attorney Lesley Devaney stressed that the Planning Commission will not determine the fate of vacation rentals.

“You are not punting the final decision to the Planning Commission,” she said. “You are having them interpret the code so you will know whether or not that code will need to be amended.

“It will give you a basis,” she added. “It is not a final decision by the city about how to handle short-term rentals, just an interpretation of an existing code so you will be in a position to know whether to amend that code, tweak the code, make additions, et cetera.”

Resident Robin Crabtree was the only one of the 17 speakers to support the move.

“It’s a good next step,” she said. “Get a read. See what they say.”

A few of those who disagreed cited a failed 2010 initiative that would have subjected short-term renters to the same 11.5 percent transient occupancy tax paid by hotel visitors at that time.

“There was no going to the Planning Commission to ask if they were legal then,” Brenda Sampiere said. “You knew about them. You tried to tax them.

“Frankly it kind of seems like you’re passing the buck,” she said. “If the Planning Commission gives you the answer that you think you want, which is to ban short-term rentals, then end of discussion unless you appeal it.

“If you’re punting to the Planning Commission … we’ve all been wasting a year and a half trying to talk to you,” Sampiere added. “That’s really bothersome.”

Don Instone asked for proof that vacation rentals are changing the community character.

“This fabric of Del Mar that’s being eroded … I don’t see that,” he said. “There are some issues there but I do not concur with this erosion factor.

“It’s never been proven,” he added. “How can you say that the erosion has taken place when you can’t show it? You have no studies.”

“I’m kind of perplexed why you are all sending this to the Planning Commission,” Laura DeMarco said, noting that one part of the zoning code allows fraternity houses.

“Our zoning code is so archaic you could run a truck through it legally,” she said.

Adding to the uncertainty is the California Coastal Commission, which historically has not supported banning short-term rentals because they allow greater coastal access to more people of varying incomes.

In a December letter to council members, Chairman Steve Kinsey noted that because regulations represent a change in intensity, the Coastal Act and the city’s Local Coastal Plan must be applied.

“We do not believe that regulation outside of that … is legally enforceable in the coastal zone, and we strongly encourage your community to pursue vacation rental regulation through your LCP,” he wrote.

“We strongly support developing reasonable and balanced regulations that can be tailored to address the specific issues within your community to allow for vacation rentals, while providing appropriate regulation to ensure consistency with applicable laws,” the letter states.

Councilwoman Ellie Haviland said allowing the Planning Commission to interpret the code is “a reasonable and important next step.”

“I think it’s important that we clarify our current code before we make any decisions at the council level as to what to do with that code,” she said.

“This is the process that we go through, which is to have the Planning Commission … make a determination and it comes back to the council to determine how we’re going to implement that,” Councilman Dave Druker said. “It’s very simple.  It should have been done years ago.”

The commission is expected to discuss the issue at its Feb. 14 meeting.

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