No Indication On Results Of Ten-Fold Fine Increases For Short-Term Rental Offenses

County officials have begun to crack down on the owners/operators of short term rental units that have been proliferating in the county’s unincorporated mountain and desert communities, and are enforcing regulations on the guests at those concerns.
The opportunity short term rentals represented to homeowners, particularly in areas which attract tourists, has long existed. Few exploited that opportunity until relatively recently. It was less than fifteen years ago when Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk and Joe Bebbia boldly explored putting an air mattress onto their living room floor and transforming their San Francisco residence into a temporary bed and breakfast inn, giving birth to the the concept of the “Air BNB” [air mattress bed and breakfast]. The trio transformed the formula into a $10.49 billion asset company traded on NASDAQ. Simultaneously, many people around the country who owned second, investment or vacation homes adapted the idea, learning along the way that in many cases vacationers were ready to pay the equivalent of a monthly rent or more to have access to a house and all of its amenities – a kitchen, dining room, living room, separate bedrooms, a yard and garage – for a week or even a weekend if the abode was advantageously located. Those with second homes in the desert or cabins in the mountains were soon tapping into the short-term rental trend. Their guests were given more spacious accommodations than a 300-square foot hotel room, one that put them close to the desert or mountain destination they were visiting. The rise of the internet made coordinating such arrangements easy. Those tourists who were who unable to book a hotel in an area where there were no motel or hotel vacancies made for plenty of willing tenants. This transformed what were previously in many cases dormant properties into revenue producers. With such a ready clientele who remained in place for a limited time, homeowners did not need to hire professional property management services or much in the way of professional assistance other than cleaning services. With the guests paying up front, collections or late payments were not an issue.
While renting their properties out for a short span was advantageous for those homeowners or investors, the influx of temporary residents into the mountain and desert districts created nuisances for those living near such leased properties. In many cases, homes or cabins were simply converted into temporary accommodations without regard to local ordinances or regulations, and there was not government oversight or regulation of the operations.
Residents were put at the disadvantage of having, for a short time, neighbors they did not know and who in some cases had no regard for others they would not be likely to ever see again.
On occasion, those guests would prove to be poor neighbors, creating disturbances, inviting dozens, scores or even hundreds of others to parties on the leased or rented premises, creating parking and traffic problems. On occasions, such parties proved out to be raves, with highly intoxicated participants. Excessive noise was an issue in some cases. Bonfires were a staple of such gatherings. In some isolated cases, those lodging at the rental properties or their guests grew aggressive or confrontational with nearby residents.
Owners of the short term rental properties skipped out on paying lodging taxes, referred to as transitory occupancy or bed taxes.
Over the years, at first irregularly and infrequently, complaints began to drift in. In time, that discontent grew. Because the mountain communities hosted numerous hotels and traditional inns and the like, the county formulated a set of regulations tailored specifically for and applicable only in the mountains, specifically Mt. Baldy, Wrightwood, Crestline, Cedarpines Park, Lake Gregory, Lake Arrowhead, Blue Jay, Valley of Enchantment, Cedar Glen, Sky Forest, Twin Peaks, Arrow Bear, Big Bear, Angeles Oaks, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, Cienega Creek, Sugarloaf, Seven Oaks and Barton Flats.
By 2019, the county moved to take up the issue directly and generally, not just in the mountains, but in the desert communities, in particular those near, in and around Joshua Tree National Park, which included Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms, as well as along the Colorado River. By November of that year, the county had approved a set of rules that were to apply to residential units rented for 30 or fewer days. Those included a permitting process for homes to be used as short-term rentals, ones that had to be renewed every two years. Owners were further required to provide onsite parking to accommodate all visitors to the rentals, maintain the rental unit’s exterior and interior, document who the renters were and post evacuation maps on all doors within the unit.
The regulations imposed a fine of $100 on the rental unit’s owner for a first offense, a $200 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third.
Recurrent complaints by residents living near short term rental units persisted even in the aftermath of the county ordinance, and earlier this year the county considered making punishment for not keeping within the regulations more draconian.
At the board of supervisors’ June 22 meeting County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez and the county’s director of land use services, Terri Rahhal, delivered a report and recommendation that the supervisors pass an urgency ordinance and companion regular ordinance that increased the penalties for short-term rental code violations.
According to Hernandez and Rahhal, earlier this year the board had “acknowledged community concerns and calls for a moratorium on approval of additional short-term residential rental unit permits. The recent increase in permitting and occupancy of short-term residential rental units in mountain and desert communities during the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to increasing complaints from full-time residents of these communities. The complaints are not limited to occasional nuisance noise or inconvenience to residents. The proliferation of short-term residential rental units has impacted the ability of local residents and workers to find housing. The increased number of short-term residential rental units, combined with the increased popularity of private home rentals, has fundamentally impacted multiple neighborhoods to the point that residents feel overwhelmed.”
On June 8, 2021, the board approved the 2021-22 budget, which allocated $10.4 million to address community code enforcement concerns. Many of the issues under scrutiny were unrelated to problems growing out of the increase in the number of short-term rental units. A major area of concern in that regard is the rise in the number of unlicensed marijuana farms, primarily in the desert and to a lesser degree in the mountains. To hash out how the county’s financial and physical resources should be allocated and its manpower utilized with regard to the county’s code enforcement efforts, the county administrative echelon, headed by Hernandez, has established a multi-disciplinary task force consisting of the sheriff’s department, the district attorney’s office, the office of county counsel, the division of agriculture/weights & measures, environmental health services, land use services and the county code enforcement division. Furthermore, the county temporarily placed its code enforcement function under the direction of the county’s newly-formed implementation division.
This latter move, Hernandez and Rahhal told the board in their June 22 report, would “leverage available resources and… redesign the way [the] code enforcement [division] engages with the communities to address concerns. This approach will include additional staffing, increased direct community engagement, staff working evenings and weekends, and higher level coordination with local law enforcement agencies to continue a proactive and responsive approach. The objective of this effort is to identify as many avenues as possible to deterring illegal and nuisance activity. The added code enforcement presence in the communities will allow staff to observe neighborhood conditions first-hand and consider the changing environment in our review of short-term residential rental unit permit applications; both new applications and renewals. The current adverse conditions reported in mountain and desert neighborhoods warrant a full review of the short-term residential rental unit regulations in the County Code, including occupancy limits, short-term residential rental unit permit standards and the criteria for issuing short-term residential rental unit permits. These conditions also justify immediate action on an urgency basis. The adverse conditions in mountain and desert neighborhoods necessitate an immediate change in the enforcement tools available to remedy violations of short-term residential rental unit regulations.”
Noting the $100, $200 and $500 maximum fines that were then in place, Hernandez and Rahhal said those were insufficient to deter the proliferation of nuisances and dangerous activity at the short-term rental sites. They said the urgency ordinance and permanent ordinance they were proposing would drastically increase the city’s ability to fine violators.
“Operating short-term residential rental units is a lucrative business that can absorb the current fines with no impetus to change,” according to the report. “The proposed urgency ordinance would increase these penalties.” They laid out criminal and administrative penalties of $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for the second offense and $5,000 for the third offense falling within a 12-month period. The report added, “Subsequent offenses would be subject to suspension or revocation of the short-term residential rental unit permit.”
Operating a short-term rental unit without a permit, Hernandez and Rahhall proposed, would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor and would be subject to the same $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000 fines per violation per day.
Two months on, county officials have not said if the ten-fold increase in fines has resolved the short term rental nuisance issue.
Officials said that the permit process involves providing the short-term rental unit operators with information on how they can operate such businesses with minimal impact on surrounding properties, along with a way that provides a safe environment for those living in the units as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
Meanwhile, this week, on Tuesday, August 24, the Twentynine Palms City Council voted not to impose a moratorium on new vacation home rentals within that 59.14-square mile, 25,500 population desert city.

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