Big Bear Residents Seizing Authority Over Short Term Rentals From The City Council

The long-simmering clash of wills over how aggressive the City of Big Bear Lake will prove in regulating vacationers and the elements of the tourist industry and landowners who cater to and profit off of them has recontexted itself, placing the city’s residents in a power position over its elected officials, a reversal of what the situation was previously.
The Big Bear Lake City Council has found itself caught between on one side the full-time residents who want tough restrictions imposed on both tourists and the owners of vacation rental units and on the other 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.Over the last several years, a majority of the city council has proven more responsive to the wealthier absentee landlords, and responded to the calls for a strict ordinance by instituting compromise measures to create a regulatory regime that involves a modest licensing requirement 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 who did not believe that City Hall had gone far enough formed on April 25, 2021, declaring the intention to lobby for more vigorous regulation. Its members made a concerted call 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. In August 2021, the Big Bear Lake City Council voted 4-to-1 against a proposed cap on vacation rental permits, with the controlling council majority members saying they wanted to give the regulations that exist an opportunity to work. If those did not achieve the desired results, they said they might then put more restrictive measures into place.
On October 21, 2021, the group animated about the issue of vacation rentals changed its name to Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. Thereafter, it embarked on an effort to bypass the city council and set about gathering signatures on a petition to place on the October 2022 ballot an initiative calling for a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city. In that same election, three positions on the Big Bear Lake City Council – those now held by Mayor Rick Herrick and councilmembers Randall Putz and Perri Melnick – are up for election.
Previously it seemed that the members of the city council – or four of them – had calculated that the resident discomfiture with the behavior and imposition of tourists on the locals was not of a critical dimension. The ability of Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals to assemble enough residents to qualify the measure for the ballot was something of a wakeup call to the council. Only Councilman Alan Lee last year was in support of enhanced tourist regulation. The other four members felt they held the upper hand and were in control of City Hall, which had the authority and leverage to prevent the local citizenry’s appetite for clamping down on the lucrative tourism industry from getting to a point of what they considered to be out of hand.
Now, however, at least two of the city council members who had lined up with tourist industry previously indicated on May 16 they are willing to compromise on the line they had taken against strict regulations on hotels and short-term rental operations and will join with Lee in seeking to insulate local residents and their neighborhoods from sometimes rowdy and rude outsiders.
On the May 16 agenda was an item by which the council was to accept that the initiative petition for the limitation of the number of short-term rentals has sufficient signatures to put the measure on the ballot. The council had the additional options of simply adopting the measure limiting the number of short-term rentals without alteration, submitting the measure to the voters at the next regular municipal election occurring at least 88 days later, that being the general gubernatorial election upcoming in November, or submitting the measure to the voters at a special municipal election occurring on a Tuesday between 88 and 103 days hence. Mayor Herrick recused himself without specifying why and did not participate in the discussion relating to vacation rentals. The council collectively acknowledged that the matter appears headed to a vote of the city’s residents in November.
A letter from San Bernardino County’s interim registrar of voters, Michael Jiminez, and his assistant, Stephanie Shea, stated that 762 signatures were affixed to the petitions, and 344 of them were subjected to an analysis, of which 295 were deemed valid, meaning the petitioners had met their burden of getting enough signatures. Big Bear Lake is San Bernardino County’s second-smallest municipality population-wise at 5,338 residents, of which 2,886 are registered to vote. Given that a sizeable contingent of city residents – 762 – were energetic and committed enough to get the matter on the ballot, it would appear the measure is likely to pass. Thus, the council had an incentive to settle the matter by simply adopting the limitations as proposed in the measure, particularly Melnick, Putz and Herrick, who are also up for election.
The council agreed to appoint Melnick and Putz to an ad hoc committee to see if they can formulate a half-way or three-quarter-way compromise that will satisfy the sponsors of the ballot measure to avoid having the issue decided in the election.
Also on the agenda this week was another issue relating to tourism in the city, that being a discussion of a potential transient occupancy tax increase. The council heard a presentation from a representative of Columbia Capital Management, LLC regarding an analysis of the tax, also known as a bed tax or hotel tax, and possibly upping the rate.
According to Columbia Capital Management, the city originally imposed a bed tax set at 6 percent in 1980, upped it to 8 percent in 1989, reduced it to 6 percent in 1994, put it back to 8 percent in 2008 and layered on another 3 percent with the creation of a Big Bear Lake Tourism Business Improvement District in 2016, taking it to 11 percent. The city realized $4,272,210 in revenue from the Big Bear Lake Tourism Business Improvement District in 2021.
The Columbia Capital Management report concluded that it was “uncertain whether differences in tax rates make a significant impact on a vacationer’s selection of a destination” and that an “incremental increase caused by a transitory occupancy tax… seems unlikely to be a noticeable deterrent to visit the city.”
Ultimately, the city council voted 3-2, with Herrick, Councilman Alan Lee and Councilwoman Melnick prevailing and Councilwoman Bynette Mote and Councilman Putz dissenting to consider a 2 percent bed tax increase for vacation rentals and 1 percent for traditional lodging facilities.
-Mark Gutglueck

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