Issues With Short Term Rentals Plague Desert And Mountain Resort Communities

Two dozen communities in San Bernardino County continue to struggle with problems relating to the proliferation of short-term rentals.
In recent years, local and county authorities have made an effort to regulate those making homes, cabins, rooms, units and even trailers available for people to live in for relatively short and in some cases longer periods in those places in the county that city slickers deem exotic, such as in the mountains or deserts and on the shores of lakes or the Colorado River. At such venues on getaways of that sort, most people are simply after a relaxing and good time, and few problems ensue. Still, with others, especially when alcohol or recreational drugs are involved, the behavior of some is not as civil as their temporary neighbors would prefer them to be. In some cases, quarters that are intended for a few people or a family or two is called upon to accommodate several dozen. That brings with it issues such as noise, overburdened parking space and compliance with rudimentary laws. On rare occasions, with no warning a rave-like event manifests in a place ill-suited for it, and things can quickly rage out of hand.
Most of these issues exist in unincorporated areas of the county, such as Mt. Baldy, Joshua Tree, Wrightwood, Crestline, Cedarpines Park, Lake Gregory, Lake Arrowhead, Blue Jay, Valley of Enchantment, Cedar Glen, Sky Forest, Twin Peaks, Arrow Bear, Big Bear City, Angeles Oaks, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, Cienega Creek, Sugarloaf, Seven Oaks, Barton Flats, Zzyzx, Amboy or Trona. Three incorporated municipalities, however – Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley, and Twentynine Palms – deal with transitory influxes of visitors on a regular basis.
In 2017, the county government made a concerted effort to deal with the matter in the mountain communities. In 2019, the county moved to take up the issue directly and generally, not just in the mountains, but in desert communities, in particular ones along the Colorado River as well as those near, in and around Joshua Tree National Park, which includes Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms. 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 units’ exteriors and interiors, document who the renters were and post evacuation maps on all doors within each 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. With the COVID-19 crisis, which resulted in stay-at-home mandates, a trend by which people decided to head out into remote areas where they could cut lose took hold. There was a rash of unpleasant and unfortunate incidents in traditional getaway locations. Last year, the county considered making punishment for not keeping within the regulations in resort locations more draconian.
At the board of supervisors’ June 22, 2021 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.
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 called for the passage of an urgency ordinance they had prepared and then the passage of a permanent ordinance they had in the works which would drastically increase the county’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 Hernandez/Rahhal 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.
Nine months hence, the intensification of fines has had some impact, though county officials have not claimed the ten-fold increase in fines has resolved the short term rental nuisance issue.
In the county’s incorporated resort cities and towns, where tourism is a significant element in the economy, imposing regulations on short term rentals is a problematic one, and it is filled with tension between residents who are not involved in the tourism industry and have no or little financial stake in it, and those whose bread is buttered by it.
Yucca Valley is more blue collar than white collar, and while some locals do make money by renting their property, most do not. After years of Yucca Valley residents enduring problems brought on by insensitive short term visitors, the town government in 2017 approved an ordinance that imposes on the owners of residences rented out as vacation homes a requirement that they apply for a $270 permit every two years and pay the same taxes imposed on hotels.
The fee, town officials said, was intended to defray the cost of the town hiring a private company to monitor the properties, enforce codes and deal with complaints relating to the properties emanating from neighbors.
Simultaneously, the city entered into a contract with San Francisco-based Host Compliance LLC to monitor vacation rentals.
Host Compliance LLC carries out that assignment remotely from San Francisco, using computer software and Internet data to keep tabs on all known vacation rentals in the town, monitoring them for compliance with the town’s codes, and informing rental unit owners of any noted violations with a notice to bring the properties into compliance.
Of all the cites in San Bernardino County, Big Bear Lake is the one where the controversy over short term rental regulation is most intense and, like unincorporated Lake Arrowhead, it is a place where the divide and disagreement over the proliferation of tourism is sharp. As a recreational and vacation mecca, Big Bear Lake attracts thousands of short term occupants annually, with arrivals coming in during all four seasons of the year. Consequently, a substantial number of property owners in Big Bear Lake derive considerable income from catering to these short term residents. They are less in favor of the city government imposing regulations on the transient population than are the homeowners in the city who must live with a constant influx of highly unpredictable temporary neighbors of variable levels of gentility. The Big Bear Lake City Council has thus found itself caught between  on one side the full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on rental units, those who own them and those who occupy them on a temporary basis and on the side the often-absentee landlords who are making a substantial amount of money by renting their properties on a temporary basis and want nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake.
The council has responded by initiating a regulatory regime that involves licensing and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest. If nuisances persist on a given property, the city will revoke the owner’s license. For a contingent of the city’s residents, City Hall has not gone far enough. They have called for a cap on vacation rentals and they are pushing the city to increase the transitory occupancy tax – i.e. the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – to be upped from 8 percent to 12 percent, based on their argument that 35 percent of the calls for service from the fire department or sheriff’s department involve short term rental properties and/or visitors to the city.
Alan Lee, who was elected to the Big Bear Lake City Council in 2020, has championed the cause of the city’s full-time residents, and he has emphasized cases where locals have been victimized by visitors, including incidents of vandalism, theft and violence. This has antagonized many of those absentee landlords, who see in such talk a danger that it will ward off customers who will avoid Big Bear Lake if it develops a reputation of allowing those who are there to be roughed up or hurt or victimized. Since the absentee landlords are generally wealthier than the permanent residents and can apply money in the form of political grease more readily than the permanent residents, the city and the majority of the city council have not been willing to put in place nor enforce regulations that go beyond the city’s current ordinances, and they have resisted the call to put a cap on the number of short-term rental licenses they issue. The controlling council majority members have said they want to allow the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those do not achieve the desired results, they say they might then put more restrictive measures into place. In the meantime, an enmity between Lee and the other members of the council has evolved, one which reflects the tension between Big Bear Lake’s full-time residents and its absentee landlords.
In the meantime, a contingent of full-time residents is flirting with the concept of a ballot measure to bring about a cap on the number of short-term rental units together with an increase in the transitory occupancy tax. Into the bargain, they want that ballot measure to limit the number of rental units an absentee landlord can have to one, the goal being to prevent or substantially limit ownership of short-term rental units by investors and encouraging local ownership of such rentals.
Remarkably, within the last month, in the City of Twentynine Palms, discussion and debate with regard to the regulation of short term rental units has mirrored much of what is going on in Big Bear Lake.
The planning commission there has been tasked with evolving a policy for regulating vacation rental units. There is a seeming consensus that capping the number of units used for that purpose is a workable solution, or at least part of the formula for alleviating some of the social ills that come with having a large transitory population at any given time. Tentatively, the commissioners collectively came up with limiting the number of vacation rentals to 12 percent of the single-family homes in the city, although commissioners Greg Mendoza and Jim Krushat opposed the 12 percent limitation. With a population of 28,065 in the 2020 Census and 5,797 single family homes, that would mean the city could host 695 short term rentals. Krushat said he believed a cap in the 19 percent to 20 percent range, or around 1,101 to 1,159 was preferable. At the opposite end of the debate, Chairwoman Leslie Paahana said she could live with a cap of 10 percent, which meant roughly 580 vacation rental units.
The Twentynine Palms Planning Commission also took up the idea floated in Big Bear Lake of limiting the number of vacation rentals that one person could own, though that discussion did not delineate a cap of one per resident. Ultimately, the commission rejected imposing a limit in that fashion. Krushat was out of step with his colleagues on that issue. He decried the trend of developers building homes that were not being sold to buyers but were built to be rented to short-term occupants. He said such homes were being used as motels and that the proponents of those projects should have represented them as hotels during the application, planning and approval process.
In Twentynine Palms, the issue of regulating short term rentals is complicated by the consideration that the city is proximate to the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base. Military personnel stationed there and their families who live off-base compose a significant portion of the city’s “transitory” residents, in some cases staying a few weeks, a few months or several years. Rules that would restrict rentals available to military members could have unintended consequences. In drawing up the regulations, city officials are seeking to avoid blurring the distinction between vacationers and Marines.
The planning commission discussed but did not finalize its position on multiple issues, including what regulations should be imposed on sound levels or noise emanating from rental units.

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