County ordinance would treat airbnbs like hotels
Planning Commission close to sending short term rental ordinance to Supervisors; Three Rivers owners say it infringes on private property rights
By Anthony Ferranti
Reporting for The Sun-Gazette
VISALIA – An Airbnb is considered private residence rather than a commercial hotel when it rents for less than a month.
That’s the benchmark used to implement additional fees, safety measures and signage regulations in a proposed county ordinance regulating short term rentals, more commonly known as Airbnbs. Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) staff argue that existing zoning ordinance requires any house rented for less than 30 days to pay a transient occupancy tax, also known as a hotel tax. Local residents, mostly those who own property in Three Rivers, argue that imposing additional regulations on how they can use their home infringes on the rights as private property owners.
Under the county’s proposed ordinance, all Airbnbs would be subject to pay the Transient Occupancy Tax, also known as a hotel tax, a one-time permit fee, and set limits on the occupancy. Airbnbs are allowed a maximum of two people per bedroom and 12 people overall overnight and an additional six guests during the day or limited to the number of parking spaces. Renters must observe quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and are not allowed to have outdoor fires or hold special events, such as weddings, receptions, meetings, conferences, parties, etc.
RMA staff also added several items following the Planning Commission’s Sept. 25 meeting on the subject. Only 24-inch signs will be allowed to display the Airbnb owner’s name and number, notice must be given to all neighboring properties within 500 feet, and a maximum of two short-term rentals per lot will be allowed. There were also some documentation requirements, such as clearly labeled smoking areas, fire safety and water conservation pamphlets and an emergency card including the property’s address and emergency phone numbers.
At its Oct. 16 meeting, several people took issue with the Tulare County Planning Commission as to whether the county has the right to force obligations on anyone with an ordinance, but by the end of the meeting there was little doubt that the commissioners are nearly set to send the much-discussed Short-Term Rental Ordinance up to the Board of Supervisors for a vote this coming November.
RMA Planning Director Mike Washam presented a thorough review of changes to the most recent draft of the ordinance. According to Washam, he and his team have collaborated throughout the year with the local fire, treasurer-tax collector, environmental health and building departments and always relied on their specific knowledge and expertise when revising the draft ordinance.
Washam also clarified during the meeting that only residential dwellings would be subject to this countywide ordinance and anyone renting tipis or trailers on their property without the proper county permit would be in violation. These persons would be required to seek a full use permit by submitting the proper application, which would then be considered for approval or denial by the Planning Commission.
Of the 298 businesses holding transient occupancy tax permits within Tulare County, which includes hotels, 173 of them are located in Three Rivers – A lion’s share of vacation rental residents in the County – with the remainder spread throughout the surrounding communities.
“I’m very concerned about fire regulations. I want to know if fire extinguishers would be required in the units,” Commissioner Maria McElroy said, asking of both Washam and Tulare County Fire Chief Norman such regulations are currently written into the ordinance.
Chief Norman replied, “I’m concerned with people coming from out of the area that have no idea what urban-interface is and creating problems in our mountain communities, so I think setting precedence on this ordinance is very important.” He continued, confirming that fire extinguishers were required in the ordinance and based on APCD (air pollution control district) regulations renters will not be allowed to burn during fire season, which runs from May through late September typically and would be required to follow “burn day” guidelines during winter months.
Three Rivers resident Karen Bodner shared her concern for clarity regarding outdoor fires saying, “Please, make it clear when people can burn and when they can’t burn.” Three Rivers’ new Fire Safe Council will be working with local fire departments to develop and distribute educational materials to go to all the rentals.
Kristie Malek of Visalia, who owns and operates a vacation rental up in Three Rivers, asked, “If you are going to approve any regulation and forward it to the board of supervisors than you make sure that there is supporting data for each proposed regulation. At all previous meetings, this has been requested, but as of now no data has ever been presented.”
After listening to all those who wished to be heard on the matter – nearly a dozen comments both for and against – the chair Wayne Millies closed public testimony.
“It’s hard for me to approve an ordinance that says we’re going to fix it as it goes along,” said commissioner John Elliot. “The fire and septic, we need to word this better in the ordinance we’re approving. I think that’s key in going forward on this.”
After further discussion with Washam, a representative from the Environmental Health division and a bit of commentary between commissioners, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to continue a review of the Short-Term Rental Ordinance. The Planning Commission will reconvene today, Nov. 6, to review revised regulations for fire and maximum occupancy restrictions.
With public comments for this matter now officially closed, the Planning Commission will only be reviewing revised language with regards to fire safety and septic systems guidelines and will not allow public comments when they reconvene.
The public will have the opportunity to speak before the Tulare County Board of Supervisors when they take up the matter, which is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 19. Additionally, the RMA encourages the public to call or send letters to them regarding this matter.