DEL MAR — A group of property owners calling themselves the Del Mar Alliance for the Preservation of Beach Access and Village is suing the city over the council’s April determination that short-term rentals are not an allowed use in all but one residential zone.
The lawsuit, filed June 1, accuses the city of violating the California Environmental Quality Act, California Coastal Act and their property rights.
The lawsuit claims the ban constitutes a “project” because it “has the potential to cause significant direct, indirect, or cumulative adverse impacts … on the environment, including but not limited to conflicts in land-use and zoning regulations.”
As such, it should have been subject to CEQA review.
“The lack of affordable access to the coast and conflicts with the policies of the Coastal Act are among the likely impacts,” Cory Briggs, the attorney representing the alliance, said.
Defending their 4-1 decision, with Mayor Terry Sinnott opposed, council members said their action was not a ban because rentals of less than 30 days are still permitted in the residential-commercial zone and they are working on ways to allow them to continue in other residential zones on a limited basis.
“The council members are either lying or do not understand the consequences of their votes,” Briggs said. “The majority of zones in which STRs were formerly allowed now have a prohibition.”
Briggs said he’s not sure “how that fact can be spun, but politicians never cease to amaze in their creativity.”
Del Mar Planning Director Kathy Garcia said because the interpretation was adopted as a resolution and not an ordinance, no code changes — and thus a CEQA review — were required.
If, going forward, specific changes to the municipal code are made an environmental review might be needed, she said.
Del Mar property owners have been renting their homes to vacationers for more than 50 years, usually for a week or two at a time. Many say it helps them afford their homes, including maintenance and property taxes, and provides business for local shops and restaurants.
Opponents say more frequent turnover rates, which have increased recently due to online booking sites such as Airbnb, are changing the “essential character of the residential neighborhoods” and causing increased traffic, parking and noise problems.
Council members said they made their interpretation based on the municipal code and community plan, neither of which specifically mention short-term rentals.
Transient use, however, is cited in the community plan, a document adopted in the late 1970s that Sinnott said needs updating because the term “short-term rental” did not exist back then, which is why it is not included.
City staff said Del Mar has a “permissive” code, which means that unless a use is expressly allowed it is not legally permitted.
A moratorium on any new short-term rental units entering the market was adopted in April 2016 and will remain in place until February 2018.
Vacation rentals that existed before the moratorium took effect can continue to operate.
During the years-long process that culminated in the recent decision, property owners said they support “commonsense regulations” to address what they say are minimal problems associated with vacation rentals.
But Briggs said that option “was not put on the table” as part of the lawsuit.
“This was an all-or-nothing proposal, and they banned STRs in all but one zone,” he said.
Briggs said the alliance membership list is not a public document but he believes there are “dozens of members.”
Longtime resident and vacation-rental owner Ralph DeMarco has spoken on behalf of the group at council meetings and said legal action was likely if the prohibition was adopted.
The lawsuit also seeks reimbursement from the city for all legal and other fees.
Del Mar City Attorney Leslie Devaney said her office will review the lawsuit, advise City Council and “then be prepared to comment further.”
Briggs said his next step will depend on the number of allegations that are denied.
“Then (we’ll) get a trial date from the judge,” he added. “That’ll probably happen in a year.”
Council members are scheduled to discuss “next steps regarding short-term rentals” at the June 19 meeting, which begins two hours early at 4 p.m.