Big Bear Solons Unable So Far to Keep Vacation Rental Regulation Measure Off Ballot

With the calendar rapidly advancing toward the November 2020 election, the prospect for a compromise being worked out between city officials and a grassroots group of activists in Big Bear Lake intent on imposing stricter guidelines and regulations on vacation rentals in the mountain city of 5,231 residents is fading with every passing day.
It appears that a denouement to the clash that has been brewing over the years between those with a vested or economic interest in the tourist trade in Big Bear Lake and those who simply reside there will take place on November 8, the date on which the city’s 2,887 voters will have an opportunity to head to the polls or meet the deadline to submit their ballots by mail. Unless those who pushed to place a measure on the ballot that calls for intensifying the regulations and conditions to be imposed on short-term rental units can have a meeting of the minds with the movers and shakers in the local tourist industry, the measure as previously drafted will come before the city’s voters for approval or rejection. Most political prognosticators in a position to have two fingers on the pulse of the mountain community believe that measure will pass.Indeed, the need for or at least the desirability of stricter control over vacation rentals appears to be one of the few areas in which there is a substantial divergence of opinion in Big Bear Lake between the city’s elected officials and its citizenry.
Big Bear Lake is, along with Lake Arrowhead, Joshua Tree, Mount Baldy and Wrightwood, one of the major magnets for tourists in San Bernardino County, those tourists being skiers, boaters, hikers, vacationers or people from the heart of the Southern California megalopolis looking to get away from the stress and rigors of civilization, if only for no more than a weekend or a few days.
While renting their properties out for a short span has proven advantageous and lucrative for some homeowners or investors, the influx of temporary residents into any given locale can create nuisances for those living near such leased properties. In at least some cases, homes or cabins have been simply converted into temporary accommodations without regard to local ordinances or regulations.
Nearby residents have been put at the disadvantage of having, for a short time, neighbors they do not know and who in some cases have little or no regard for others they are not 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, involving parking and traffic problems. Rarely but still potentially, such parties can prove to be raves, with highly intoxicated participants. Excessive noise has been an issue in some cases. Bonfires are a staple of such gatherings. In some isolated cases, those lodging at the rental properties or their guests grow aggressive or confrontational with nearby residents.
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 what many local residents consider to be watered-down 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 in April 2021. They lobbied for more vigorous regulation. Its members made a concerted call for a cap on vacation rentals, and they pushed the city to increase 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 in Big Bear Lake 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.
That was not good enough for the group of residents animated about the issue of vacation rentals, which on October 21, 2021 changed its name to Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. Thereafter, its members embarked on an effort to bypass the city council and they 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 council members Randall Putz and Perri Melnick – are up for election.
Previously, Herrick, Putz, Melnick and Councilwoman Bynette Mote appeared convinced that the resident discontent with the behavior and imposition of tourists on the locals was not of a critical dimension. The four were a bit taken aback when the group was able to get 762 of the city’s 2,887 registered voters to endorse the petition to put the measure on this year’s ballot. According to San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Michael Jimenez, he and his office made an analysis of 344 of those 762 signatures affixed to the petitions, determining that 295 were indeed valid. Thus, Jimenez deemed that the petitioners had met their burden of getting enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.
That was something of a wake-up call to the council majority. Only Councilman Alan Lee last year was in support of enhanced tourist regulation. The other four members felt they had control of the levers and pulleys at City Hall, which had the authority to prevent the local citizenry from indulging its appetite for clamping down on the lucrative tourism industry.
By May, it seemed that Putz and Melnick were willing to compromise on the line they had taken against strict regulations on short-term rental operations and would at least entertain the notion of joining with Lee in seeking to insulate local residents and their neighborhoods from sometimes rowdy and rude outsiders.
On May 16, the council agreed to appoint Melnick and Putz to an ad hoc committee to see if they could formulate a half-way or three-quarter-way compromise that would be satisfactory to the sponsors of the ballot measure to avoid having the issue decided in the election. It was thought that if the council agreed to institute through a vote of its members some regulations with teeth in them in the form of either a resolution or ordinance that held out the promise of actually abating nuisances at the vacation rental properties, Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals might agree to rescind the petition to put the measure on the ballot.
After numerous meetings, however, ones both official and unofficial, formal and informal, a workable accommodation between the two sides, the one aligned with residents and the other with the city’s entrepreneurs, has eluded those seeking it.
It was reported to the Sentinel that both Melnick and Putz had conferred with the owners of vacation rentals and tried to usher them toward agreeing to certain conditions and restrictions on their operations. This brought a response that was then put before the prime movers with Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. The leaders of the residents’ group felt the concessions the council ad-hoc committee had been able to get out of the short-term rental owners were inadequate to redress the problems, and they believe keeping the measure on the ballot will likely meet their expectations in that regard, as they are relatively certain the measure will pass.
There is some prospect that further discussion will yield some compromise, but the registrar of voters’ looming and fast approaching deadline by which the ballot must be finalized renders it unlikely that city officials can convince the measure’s sponsors to agree to remove the initiative from the ballot.
The question of whether the measure will remain on the ballot has wider political implication, since not only are Melnick, Putz and Herrick due to stand for reelection in November, Councilman Lee is facing a recall question that was put on the ballot by an amalgam of residents and businesses in the city, including those involved in the tourism industry, and with the support of the other four members of the city council, none of whom get along particularly well with Lee. Having the measure to tighten restrictions on vacation rentals on the ballot will very likely drive to the polls large numbers of residents unhappy with the city’s lukewarm regulations relating to short-term rentals. Those voters are more likely to support Lee against the recall effort and will probably vote against Putz, Herrick and Melnick in the regularly scheduled municipal election if alternate candidates emerge to oppose them.
-Mark Gutglueck

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