Needles Now Intent On Regulating Proliferating Short Term Rental Units Used By Vacationers

The City of Needles has joined with the building momentum in three other cities in the county as well as at the level of county government in imposing further restrictions on short-term or vacation residential rentals.
On April 12, the Needles City Council previewed and gave initial approval to an ordinance requiring those leasing or renting residential units for short durations to obtain a license.
Within the last decade, issues have cropped up in areas around the county that are frequented by vacationers, as mild to more serious conflicts have arisen between the residents of those more exotic locales and the people who temporarily flock to the mountains, picturesque desert districts or the shores of the county’s several lakes or the Colorado River.
The unincorporated communities of 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, Forest Falls, Running Springs, Green Valley Lake, and the four incorporated municipalities of Big Bear Lake, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Needles have been for decades popular destinations for vacationers or those seeking to unwind for a weekend or do some skiing, waterskiing, camping or hiking. San Bernardino County was not immune to the AirBNB [air mattress bed and board] phenomenon in the early 2000s – in which the owner or a residence in a desirable location simply lays down air mattresses in a living room or den and rents that space out as a crash pad or motel room to those who are going to briefly visit that area. Accordingly, the number of short-term renters in many San Bernardino County communities mushroomed in the last decade-and-a-half. In recent years, cabins, rooms, units and even trailers have been made available for people to live in for relatively short and in some cases longer periods in rustic areas throughout the county. Those who permanently live in proximity to those vacation spots have grown increasingly vocal in complaining about these transitory nearby residents. On occasion, the comportment of some of those vacationers is not as civil as their temporary neighbors would prefer, particularly when alcohol or recreational drugs are involved. In some cases, quarters that are intended for a few people or a family or two is called upon to accommodate several dozen occupants. That brings with it issues such as noise, overburdened parking space and compliance with rudimentary laws. On infrequent occasions, a rave-like event manifests in a place ill-suited for it, and things in such circumstances have quickly raged out of hand.
In 2017, 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. The county imposed on short-term rentals renter identification/registration and on-site parking requirements, exterior and interior maintenance standards, along with a mandate that evacuation maps on all doors within each unit be posted. The county instituted fines of $100 on the rental units’ owners for a first violation of those protocols, a $200 fine for a second offense and a $500 fine for a third, as well as like penalties for disturbances at the units. In 2021, after those earlier efforts proved less than fully effective, the county upped its fines to more draconian terms, those being that offenses were no longer considered administrative but criminal, subject to 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. Operating a short-term rental unit without a permit was subject to the same $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000 fines per violation per day.
In Yucca Valley, to offset the problems residents there endured in their encounters with 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 applied to hotels. Permit fees are used to fund 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.
Big Bear Lake is the site of the most intensive controversy over short term rentals in San Bernardino County. As a ski resort in the winter and early spring and a location that attracts boaters, water-skiers, fisherman and other sportsmen from late spring into the fall, it attracts thousands upon thousands of short-term occupants annually. A substantial number of property owners in Big Bear Lake derive considerable income from catering to short-term residents. A substantial number of homeowners in the city have no financial interest in tourism, and many of those are less than appreciative of having to put up with a constant influx of highly unpredictable temporary neighbors of variable levels of gentility. They have importuned the Big Bear Lake City Council to institute rules and ordinances that will impose tough restrictions on rental units. The council majority responded by initiating a regulatory regime that involves licensing and fines on cabin owners on whose properties problems manifest, with the potential for revocation of those licenses if the nuisances persist on a given property. A contingent of city residents do not believe that City Hall has gone far enough with those measures, and they have continued to push for more vigorous regulation, including a cap on vacation rentals and an increase in the transitory occupancy tax – i.e., the city’s bed tax or hotel tax – 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. In August 2021, the Big Bear Lake City Council voted 4-to-1 against a proposed cap on vacation rental permits. Council members said they wanted to give the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those do not achieve the desired results, they said they might then put more restrictive measures into place.
That prompted a contingent of city residents to band together under the aegis of an organization dubbed Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. They set about gathering sufficient signatures on a petition calling for a ballot measure to be placed before the city’s voters during the November 2022 election asking whether a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city should be imposed. On April 7 they turned over to Big Bear City Clerk Erica Stephenson those petitions, endorsed by what gatherers said was more than 750 signatures, enough to qualify the measure for inclusion on the ballot.
In Twentyine Palms, which lies proximate to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, residents there are increasingly fed up with strangers blowing into town, taking up a very short-term residence in their neighborhoods and partying loud and hard until dawn. They want city officials to do something about it. The city council turned to the planning commission for a recommendation. Three of the five members of the planning commission – Leslie Paahana, Jason Dickson and Max Walker – have indicated they are willing to limit to 12 percent – 696 – the number of the city’s 5,797 houses that can be utilized as short-term rentals. Another member of the planning commission, Jim Krushat, entertains the concept of limiting the rentals, but expressed a preference for a limitation closer to 20 percent or 1,159. Commissioner Greg Mendoza has said he does not think it is the city’s place to engage in such regulation and that the free market should determine who will rent short term or long term. The commission has not made an official recommendation to the council, which is to consider an ordinance that could limit the number of short-term rentals to as few as ten percent of the city’s housing stock – 579 – on May 10.
In Needles, residents like those elsewhere, have complained about the increasing number of AirBNBs and vacation homes and short-term condominium rentals and leases.
The ordinance the city council considered and gave a first reading to on April 12 would impose a $400 application and licensing fee on those who register their property for short-term rental use as temporary living quarters in the city on California’s east coast along the Colorado River.
The registration fee is intended to offset the cost of city staff carrying out a building and code inspection of the property to ascertain whether it is safe and in compliance with California residence codes and statues as well as the San Bernardino County Fire code.
In addition, the fee will go into a fund that is used toward the city’s contract with the sheriff’s department, which responds to resident complains regarding illegal fireworks, noise and excessive sound violations and illegal or other unpermitted activities within residential neighborhoods.
The ordinance includes provisions that would prohibit the rental units from being used to host commercial activities such as weddings, conferences, fraternity parties and corporate retreats. Furthermore, owners of the units would need to register the renters who stay there prior to allowing them to take occupancy of the unit. The property owners are required under the proposed ordinance to be available by telephone around the clock to address any issues or complaints that come up and further be available at all times to arrive and be physically present at the property within 30 minutes to respond and remedy complaints in the event a situation develops where that is necessary.
The council is scheduled to make a second reading of the ordinance on April 26. If the council again votes to ratify the ordinance at that time, it will go into effect 30 days later.
-Mark Gutglueck

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