County Moving Toward Heftier Regulations On Short-Term Rentals Later This Year

The San Bernardino County Department of Land Use Services has signaled that it will soon intensify its program aimed at the regulation of short-term rentals.
For more than a decade, various locations considered exotic in San Bernardino County, most notably in the desert and the mountains, have become popular weekend getaways for wealthy residents of San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and lower San Bernardino counties who are looking to tour Joshua Tree National Monument, engage in mountain trail hiking, boat on Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear Lake or enjoy a “white weekend” during December, January and February. Several locations in the desert have long been, and are becoming increasingly more, popular with tourists and so-called “snowbirds” fleeing harsh winter weather elsewhere in the country as well as Canada.
A previous county ordinance relating to short-term rentals in the mountains was instituted by the county in 2015. In late 2018 the county took up the issue once more with an eye to revamping and updating those regulations. A newly drafted form of the ordinance extending the regulations to the desert was considered in public hearings held by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission in August and September 2019 and was passed by the board of supervisors in November 2019.
The ordinance applied to short-term residential rentals and short-term accessory dwelling units, requiring owners of such properties to register at least once every two years any property being utilized for rentals on a less than continuous basis, meaning, in practical terms, for thirty days or less. The ordinance further required identification of and signatures from renters, the maintenance of records showing compliance with the county code, and gave the county the authority to revoke a short-term rental permit, based upon violations. A permit revocation recorded against an owner entails a follow-up application fee of twice that for a permit to undo the revocation. A violation of the ordinance committed by a short-term occupant of the property accrues to the detriment of the property owner, which county officials believed to be an incentive to have the owners ensure compliance with the rules by their tenants. In most, though not all cases, short-term rental units are ones owned by so-called absentee landlords, that is, ones that are not occupied by the owners and are not proximate or co-located to the domicile of the owners. In a minority of cases, the properties in question involve accessory dwelling units, those being ones that are located on a property on which the owner resides or on which another long term residential unit exists.
While the 2019 ordinance, in the case of desert properties, in general created regulations that previously did not exist and in the case of mountain properties tightened existing restrictions, in one respect it liberalized the county policy. Previously, on properties containing both a primary residence and an accessory dwelling unit, which can be variously referred to as a guest house or a granny flat, only one of the units could be made available as a short-term rental. The language of the ordinance passed in 2019 dispensed with the restriction that called for accessory dwelling units being rented for a term of 30 days or longer, which had precluded accessory dwelling units from being utilized as short-term rentals. The revamped language allowed accessory dwelling units to be rented on a short-term basis in both the mountain and desert regions, provided that one or more of the units on the parcel is occupied by the property owner or his or her agent. At Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe’s suggestion, the board altered that language to allow both accessory dwelling units and the primary residence on a property to serve as short-term rental units as long as the property is two acres or larger.
The regulations that are now in place call for the units rented to have placards, signs or notices that provide the renters with county standards for the rentals in writing, including the phone number for the county’s 24/7 short-term rental complaint line and require owners of short-term rental properties to arrange to have trash service for each of the rental units. Even in cases where the rental units are vacant for months during the year, the owners of the units must pay for trash pick-up when no refuse is being generated on the properties.
The ordinance sets maximum occupancy standards for seven categories of short-term rental units, with 20 persons being the maximum for any single unit. Parking standards restrict vehicles of renters from parking anywhere other than on the property of the short-term residential rental unit. Road and street widths in many mountain communities are narrow, and the proliferation of cars parked at certain junctures along them had in the past created circumstances in which the streets or roads become impassable.
The 2019 ordinance added a prohibition of outdoor fires in the mountain region, that the interior and exterior of a short-term unit be kept free of hazardous materials, and a requirement that spas/hot tubs be covered and locked when not in use and that the spas or tubs be maintained in sanitary conditions.
The ordinance provided the county with the power to issue and serve an administrative subpoena to obtain specific information regarding short-term rentals.
The ordinance requires that an evacuation map be posted on the back of a short-term rental unit’s main door.
The sheer numbers of short-term rentals have increased substantially in the mountain and desert communities. In neighborhoods of some communities, including Mt. Baldy, Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory, Crestline, Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, tourist activity has mounted during certain periods. Depending on the location, a property owner can rent out a property to one or more occupants on four weekends and make two to three times the amount of money that could be made renting the property on a long-term basis over a comparable one-month period. This has created “transitory neighborhoods” in which homeowners who live on their property are at times surrounded by homes or cabins which are owned by investors and occupied by “neighbors” who are not in place long enough so their acquaintance can be made by the actual inhabitants of those districts.
While the permanent residents of these areas were supportive of the county’s efforts at regulating the short-term rental market, the rules put in place have not undone the transitory nature of the districts in question. Conversely, some San Bernardino County property owners in these districts no longer value their mountain or desert properties as their own domiciles but are using the residences they have there as a means of generating income by renting them out at a relatively high rate for short periods of time, essentially converting their units into hotels.
The 2019 ordinance applies to permanent structures that are utilized as short-term rental units and accessory dwelling units, including stand alone homes, cabins, guesthouses and casitas.
The City of Big Bear Lake is a skiing mecca in the winter and early spring, a co-claimant with Lake Arrowhead as the boating capital of San Bernardino County from spring until mid-fall, a major swimming venue in the summer, a place where hiking, camping and fishing are ongoing year round and the spot for upland game bird and California mule deer hunting in season. As such, Big Bear Lake attracts tourists like no other place in San Bernardino County per capita, given that its 5,102 population makes it the second smallest of the county’s 24 municipalities. For at least half the year, Big Bear Lake has as many or more outsiders breathing its 1.277-mile-high oxygen-thin atmosphere on a daily basis than natives who call it home.
Big Bear Lake’s status as a tourist community first and foremost has proven highly profitable and advantageous to the operators of the community’s skiing resorts, lodges, hotels, motels, boating rental businesses, the owners/landlords of short-term rentals, property owners, investors, real estate speculators and the like. Still, the influx of temporary residents into any given locale and in particular the 6.5-square mile city limits of Big Bear Lake has created nuisances for those living in proximity to properties that have been leased out or rented on a temporary basis.
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 have proven to be poor neighbors, creating disturbances, inviting dozens, scores or even hundreds of others to parties on the premises they have leased or rented, 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.
Gradually over the last ten years and then more loudly still in the last five years, Big Bear Lake’s full-time residents began importuning the members of the Big Bear City Council to impose tough restrictions on both tourists and the owners of vacation rental units. Big Bear Lake’s absentee landlords and present landlords, who were making a killing by renting their properties on a temporary basis, wanted nothing in place that will discourage renters from coming to Big Bear Lake. They sought to discourage the city council from taking any action whatsoever. The council sought to take a middle path, passing an ordinance that many local residents considered 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.
In 2021, a contingent of Big Bear Lake residents who did not believe that City Hall had gone far enough formed a local federation that called itself Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals. They redoubled the lobbying effort for more vigorous regulation, making a concerted call for a cap on vacation rentals, pushing 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.
The city’s residents did not take that lying down. They embarked on an effort to bypass the city council, which they said was collectively too sympathetic to the tourism industry, and they set about gathering signatures on a petition to place an initiative on the November 2022 ballot calling for a limit on the number of vacation rentals in the city.
City officials were a bit fazed when the Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals group was able to get 762 of the city’s 2,887 registered voters to endorse the petition to put the measure on the ballot and acting San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Michael Jimenez and his office made an analytical determination that the petitioners had met their burden of getting enough signatures to force the matter to a vote.
Placed on the November 2022 ballot for Big Bear Lake’s voters was Measure O and Measure P.
Measure O asked “Shall a measure be adopted to amend the Big Bear Lake Municipal Code to limit the number of vacation rental licenses the city may issue to a maximum of 1,500 and limit the number of vacation contracts to 30 per year per property, excluding home-sharing arrangements, limiting duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes to one vacation rental per property, and enacting additional further limitations and regulation for vacation rentals?” Measure P called for increasing the hotel tax from 8 percent to 9 percent on January 1, 2024, and then increasing it from 9 percent to 10 percent on January 1, 2025, with the revenue dedicated to general services in the city.
At that point, a wake-up call went out to the local tourism industry and those who were heavily invested in turning a profit on short-term rentals, one that declared the long-term residents of Big Bear Lake were militating to clip the wings of the local tourist trade.
The the committee in favor of Measure O, consisting of Big Bear Lake United to Limit Short Term Rentals and local residents, collected $19,649.59 to run the campaign to convince Big Bear’s residents to vote for the measure, going into debt in that effort by spending $24,231.47 on a campaign that involved signs and mailers.
The No on O Committee raised $173,978.07 to defeat it, of which $171,278.07 came from individuals or entities outside of Big Bear Lake. The Committee to Expand the Middle Class, an entity sponsored by AirBnb, Inc, put up $50,153 to support No on O. The California Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization Political Action Committee donated another $49,999. The National Association of Realtors put up $49,999.99.
The committee in favor of Measure O spent $8.39 per voter registered in Big Bear Lake in the effort to convince them they should support the initiative.
The committee against Measure O spent some $60.26 on each of the city’s registered voters in the effort to convince them they should reject the initiative.
When the votes were cast and counted, it appeared the discrepancy in the amount of money spent on the two campaigns controlled the outcome. There were 832 votes or 41.39 percent in favor of Measure O and 1,178 votes or 58.61 percent in opposition to it.
Measure P, which had no committees promoting nor fighting it, passed with 1,044 votes or 53.87 percent in favor and 894 votes or 46.13 percent opposed.
On August 3, Heidi Duron, the planning director with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department, and Colin Drukker, a county consultant with the firm Placeworks, decamped at the Twin Peaks County Offices for a meeting with San Bernardino Mountain Community residents, the purpose for which was to both provide information and take a survey of residents’ attitudes with regard to short-term rentals.
Duron wanted to know whether mountain residents believed short-term rentals are impacting the local housing market.
Before the turn of the millennium, reservations for and renting rooms was done directly between visitors/tourists and hotels and cabin operators. Since 1995, the site VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner, operated by Expedia), and since 2008, Airbnb have made it possible for residential homeowners to share or rent their homes or space therein with members of the public. Other companies are now providing rental arrangement services. The COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for short-term homes in rustic and rural areas. In unincorporated county areas alone, according to Duron, there are over 6,300 units licensed as short-term rentals.
Some mountain residents expressed to Duron their concern that corporations have now leapt into the breach and are now constructing what are tantamount to “small hotels” on relatively small lots. This represents a new wave of ownership in which companies are supplanting individual home owners in what were traditionally residential districts.
With the county’s update of its so-called San Bernardino County Housing Element document launched in 2022, closer examination of short-term rentals has been undertaken, according to Duron, with efforts to determine if such rentals are impacting the availability and cost of permanent housing, and if long-term renters are being priced/forced out of the market by short term rentals.
In March, county officials concluded that there is a dearth of data with regard to short-term rentals’ impact on the housing situation in the county.
The San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department is now engaged in an outreach effort to obtain more such data. Upon the assimilation of that information, county officials will be intensifying short-term rental regulations. The department is going to deliver findings and a recommendation to the board of supervisors by the end of the year, with a revamped short-term rental ordinance anticipated for consideration and passage in 2024.
The county will consider the rate of conversion of rental housing into short-term rentals and regulations put in place by other counties and cities in the state. The county has hired extra workers to compile that data, including that extrapolated from internet sites offering short-term rental arrangements. The county is also quietly seeking to ferret out unpermitted short-term rentals.
Roughly 93 percent of short-term rentals are single family homes. Close to 99 percent of those renting short term rentals use the entire premises. The number of short-term rentals have mushroomed since 2018. Since last year, the short-term rental frenzy has cooled.
In May 2022, Twentynine Palms set an 8.525 percent cap on how many of the city’s housing units can be utilized as vacation rentals, which practically means that no more than 500 of its 5,797 dwelling units can be occupied by short-term renters.
Through the county’s adoption of its current housing element in September 2022, the board of supervisors sought to address housing needs and the development of affordable housing. An issue identified was the degree to which short-term rentals impinge on the availability of housing throughout the county. The board requested that the county’s department of land use services study the issue, and carry out an assessment of short-term rentals by March 31. The land use services department did not meet that deadline. With the ultimate determination of how to interpret that data once it is collected, it is anticipated the board of supervisors will vote on instituting a policy proposed by county staff, perhaps one containing a percentage or numerical limitation on short-term rentals, similar to that in Twentynine Palms.
Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply