Planning Commission wants data before ruling on STRs

Planning Commission wants data before ruling on STRs
Asked by City Council to weigh in on proposed short-term rental regulations, the Planning Commission recommended maintaining the status quo for one year to collect data that can be used to make an informed decision. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — Tasked by City Council to make recommendations on proposed regulations to allow short-term rentals in residential zones, the Planning Commission, after another marathon public hearing at its Sept. 12 meeting, concluded more information is needed before it can weigh in.

While not technically allowed in those areas according to a council determination, existing rentals of less than 30 days currently can and do exist.

However, a moratorium in place since April 2016 prohibits any new STRs, as they are referred to, from entering the market.

Earlier this year council asked the Planning Commission to determine if vacation rentals are an allowed use under the municipal code and community plan. Members of the five-member advisory panel said they could not do so until STRs were defined.

Based on their interpretation of city laws and the community plan, council members in April determined they were not permitted and created regulations to allow them under limited circumstances that include seven-day minimum stays for no more than 28 days a year.

During the recent required public hearing, following about three hours of testimony and discussion, planning commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the city maintain the status quo for a year and require owners to register their units, preferably within 30 days.

Doing so will allow for the collection of frequently sought data on the number of units, where they are located and how long they have been used as vacation rentals, how many people are staying in them and for how long, the amount of rent that is paid and violations or nuisance complaints.

One problem with that recommendation could be the one-year extension because according to state law, the moratorium can’t continue beyond April 2018.

Commissioners also voted 4-1 to oppose the proposed regulations because the seven-day minimum may be too restrictive and 28 days annually may be too few. They did, however, accept the definition of short-term rentals as an accessory use in residential zones.

Del Mar has been trying for several years to find the best way to address STRs, which have existed in the beach city for decades. There has been increased activity recently due mostly to easy booking through online sites such as Airbnb and Vacation Rental by Owner.

Owners say it is a property right that helps them afford their homes, with high property taxes and maintenance bills, and provides business for local shops and restaurants.

Opponents say the high turnover rates are changing the community character and causing more traffic, parking, trash and noise problems.

Chairman Ted Bakker said neighborhood character is “enormously important” and one of the reasons he moved to Del Mar.

“I understand this is a divisive issue in our community but our job as planning commissioners is to administer, protect and follow the community plan and the zoning codes,” he said.

He cited court cases that have recognized the importance of “maintaining and promoting the special residential character of residential zones apart from commercial zones.”

With a long-term resident comes stability and increased interest in the welfare of neighbors, Bakker said

“We cannot build a community based on short-term renters,” he added. “The transient tenant is here to enjoy the vacation and not … build a community as they do in their own hometown.”

“I agree that the residential character is important, but it is difficult to establish a nexus between the diminution of that character for limited short-term rental use,” Don Countryman said.

“I think it is important that we try to assess at some point …  the economic impacts of this for such a restrictive use,” he added. “We simply don’t have the data. There’s been no systematic effort by the city to obtain such data. And one hopes that policy flows from good data.

“I’m very uncomfortable adopting this kind of resolution with so little information … about economic impact and so little information about really what the level of problems are,” Countryman said.

Nate McCay agreed.

“I’m sort of amazed that we are asked to … make a recommendation on an ordinance when we aren’t given any information about justification for the contents of the ordinance,” he said. “I find it somewhat insulting, actually, that this City Council would send this.

“To not know the economic impact of what is proposed, it’s positively astonishing,” McCay added. “This could … have a huge economic impact on the businesses in town and it is part of the community plan that the city businesses be supported by City Council.

“I don’t think that this body should ever recommend any ordinance without understanding a complete justification and having a good understanding of the consequences of passing the ordinance,” he said. “In this case we have neither.”

Countryman said community character needs to be better defined. McCay said it should be preserved, “but until it is established that it is being impinged, we are solving a problem that we haven’t proven even exists.”

All but about three of the nearly 20 speakers opposed the proposed regulations. Of the more than five dozen emails submitted, mostly from STR proponents, two were petitions. One contained 49 names of people who supported the City Council proposal.

Another 302 were opposed but supported what they call “commonsense” rules. For example, some were OK with the seven-day minimum but not the 28-day maximum.

Also key to the proposed restrictions moving forward is approval by the California Coastal Commission, which weighed in via email.

Vacation rental regulation in the coastal zone must occur within the context of the city’s local coastal program (LCP) because STRs represent a change in the intensity of use and of access to the shoreline, wrote Steve Kinsey, chairman of the state agency charged with preserving and maintaining coastal access.

He stated that outright bans through other local processes may not be “legally enforceable in the coastal zone.”

He noted the commission has not historically supported blanket STR bans and has found such prohibitions “unduly limit public recreational access opportunities inconsistent with the Coastal Act.”

“However … where further proliferation of vacation rentals would impair community character or other coastal resources, restrictions may be appropriate,” Kinsey added. “In any case, 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 CCC has supported limits on the number of vacation rentals allowed in certain areas, the types of housing that can be used as STRs, maximum vacation rental occupancies and the amount of time a residential unit can be used as an STR during a given time period.

The state agency also supports regulations for parking, garbage, noise and signage, posting 24-hour contact information, the collection of transient occupancy taxes and enforcement protocols.

The letter stated vacation rentals provide an important source of visitor accommodations in the coastal zone, especially for large families and groups and “people of a wide range of economic backgrounds.”

“At the same time we also recognize and understand legitimate community concerns associated with the potential adverse impacts associated with vacation rentals,” Kinsey wrote. “Thus, in our view it is not an ‘all or none’ proposition.”

Planning Commission member Philip Posner said contrary to what’s been said in the past, “we’re not looking to kick the can down the road and throw it back.”

“What we’re looking for is information and data to make an informed decision that will impact not only the city of Del Mar … but its residents and also owners of homes who aren’t residents but yet still homeowners in the city. It’s going to have a big impact and we should know what that could be based on what should be accurate data.”

The topic will be in front of City Council for further discussion next month.

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