18 Months After Instituting Limits On Short-Term Rentals, Twentynine Palms Solons Rethinking Rules

A year-and-a-half after Twentynine Palms instituted regulations on short-term rentals in the 59.1-square mile, 27,491 population city, an effort has been mounted to revamp those rules. Some in the city feel that the restrictions put in place in May 2022 did not go far enough. Others, particularly those who have invested in residential real estate and have converted homes and apartments into vacation rentals and are turning a profit by having done so, see the city’s meddling as overregulation that has already gone too far. In recent weeks, this clash in attitude has prevented the city council from reaching a consensus on how to proceed with regard to the contentious issue.
The Twentynine Palms City Council after some degree of back-and-forth in May 2022 settled on an 8.525 percent cap on how many of the city’s housing units can be utilized as vacation rentals.
In Twentynine Palms, as in a handful of other communities throughout San Bernardino County such as Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake, Needles and Yucca Valley – out-of-the way and what some might call exotic spots that can serve as a quick getaway for that portion of the Southern California populace seeking a respite from urban existence – large numbers of vacationers or those intent on a relaxing weekend have demonstrated themselves as willing to pay top dollar to lease a house, apartment, condominium, cabin or even a trailer for a month or two or a week or just two or three days.
On occasion, especially when alcohol or recreational drugs are involved, the civility of some vacationers leaves something to be desired, which can be onerous to their temporary neighbors. 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.
Accordingly, over the last several years, San Bernardino County has moved to put regulations into place regarding short term rentals in its unincorporated areas, ones that involved evolving and steepening fines imposed on the owners of those rental properties that now range from 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. County officials are looking at stiffening those fines even further.
Yucca Valley and Big Bear Lake have likewise instituted ordinances regulating vacation rentals.
At the same time, short-term rentals are increasingly seen as a bane in that they are steepening the housing crisis, as existing units that could house families or individuals on a permanent basis are increasingly in many areas, including most poignantly Twentynine Palms, being monopolized as makeshift motels that serve a transitory population.
In Twentynine Palms, officials in early 2022 took up the issue of updating the municipal code relating to vacation home rentals.
The city lies adjacent to a Marine Corps Base. Some of its housing stock is used by the families of Marines stationed at the base. In addition, tourists interested in Joshua Tree National Monument find Twentynine Palms a good place to stay, such that they can leave their rented temporary residence in the morning, explore the desert wonderland during the day, and return to comfort by nightfall.
Many homes, which were previously rented to those who resided in the city, are now monopolized by temporary renters, who are willing to pay higher rents on the short term than the permanent residents can afford.
In February 2022, the Twentynine Palms City Council as it was then composed called upon the planning commission to look into the issue and make a recommendation.
Planning commissioners Leslie Paahana, Jason Dickson and Max Walker were all in favor of capping the number of vacation rentals the city will allow and seemed intent on limiting that number to somewhere near one-tenth of the 5,797 houses in the city. Commissioner Jim Krushat entertained the concept of limiting the rentals, but expressed a preference for a limitation closer to 20 percent. 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. Meanwhile, large numbers of residents have lobbied for a 5 percent cap.
Paahana at the March 1, 2022 meeting pushed for a cap of 10 percent, which would have levied a restriction of 578 vacation units. Krushat countered with a 19 percent proposal, or 1,101. At that point, the council majority indicated it would likely recommend a compromise of 12 percent, or 696. While a decision was postponed over the commission not being able to come to a consensus, an ad hoc committee, including members of the council, planning commission and public, had recommended several changes to the ordinance governing short-term rentals. The committee recommended a doubling of fines for disturbance and safety violations at rentals to $500 for the first violation, $1,000 for the second and $2,000 for the third within a 12-month period.
A city staff report pegged the number of active permitted vacation home rental units in the city at 264 and the number of inactive permitted vacation home rental units at 61. In addition there were at that time 122 pending applications for vacation home rental permits. Thus, it appeared the city officially had 447 short term rental units in place. Anecdotally, however, reports were that some homes are being rented or leased out on an abbreviated basis without being registered with the city.
Astrid Johnson, the president of the Morongo Basin ARCH Coalition to Align Resources and Challenge Homelessness, said the massive transition of permanent rental units in Twentynine Palms to temporary ones was having the effect of throwing families out onto the streets. Wayne Hamilton with the Morongo Unified School District said that families with school age children are losing their abodes to temporary visitors to the city.
At the same time, owners of resorts and hotels as well as homes rented out year-round to visitors did not want any municipal ordinances that would discourage outsiders from coming into the city. Some individuals had invested money in purchasing real estate in Twentynine Palms with the expectation of being able to rent the properties out on a short-term basis.
Krushat, who has, or had political ambition and in 2020 ran unsuccessfully for city council representing the Second District and is a short-term vacation rental owner/operator himself, at the May 2022 meeting enunciated the belief that ideally caps should not be used and that the free market should predominate. Nevertheless, he said he would accept a cap of 19 percent or 20 percent. When the sentiment of the city council appeared to be drifting toward imposing a cap, Krushat said he thought the city should limit property owners to two or three licenses each.
Ultimately, in response to Councilman Joel Klink’s motion, the council unanimously set a 500-unit cap on the number of homes that can serve as short term rentals and a five-unit-per-entity limit to, Klink said, keep corporate interests out of the local rental market.
The limits, city officials said, were to remain in place until after the 2030 census is conducted. That concept, however, has been rethought.
The city council on November 14 took up the subject of short-term rentals once again.
One segment of the public wants further crackdowns on vacation home rentals. Others want no more regulation or even those in place to be removed. Members of the public expressed both views. The council considered planning commission recommendations relating to the subject.
Among those recommendations was one that the vacation home rental must have a minimum of two paved, off-street, on-site parking spaces. When the unit consists of more than four bedrooms, each additional bedroom or sleeping area beyond the first four should be provided with one dedicated parking stall measuring 19 feet in length and 9 feet in width, according to the planning commission and in no case shall the number of vehicles exceed the number of on-site parking spaces available. No portion of any such required parking stall shall be located within either a required front or street side yard setback area, according to the planning commission and all required parking spaces should comply with the city’s other location and design standards.
The planning commission said that that maximum overnight occupancy of a vacation home rental should be limited to two persons per bedroom, plus two additional persons, excluding persons 5 years of age or younger. The planning commission also said that no on-site exterior signs should be posted advertising a vacation home rental, except that a single sign no smaller than one square foot in size and none larger than two square feet in size should be displayed in a location clearly visible from the adjacent street. The sign should only contain a 24-hour contact number for the owner or agent, and the license number, according to the planning commission.
A vacation home rental that is inactive for twelve months or longer should be withdrawn from the city’s list of permitted vacation home rentals and not counted towards the city-wide limit, the planning commission recommended. An active vacation home rental should be required to be rented for at least one day in a year from the time of the license issuance or renewal date, the commission recommended.
A short-term vacation rental should be declared to be in noncompliance with the development code if the owner has constructed any new structures or additions, made structural alterations to any existing structure, or made any other modifications on the property without obtaining proper permits from the city, the commission said, and any such action should result in a citation, fine or revocation of the unit’s permit, according to the commission.
The planning commission also recommended that the city take a laissez-faire attitude toward those homes to be build as short-term rentals in an area close to Joshua Tree National Park, what was referred to as a “buffer zone,” where no ban or limitations on short-term rentals should exist.
Commissioners recommended that houses could be built which were intended for use as short-term rentals.
The latter recommendation was not favored by some residents, who said all approved new units should be planned as and built as residences. Others told the council it should require any new house to be occupied by the owner or long-term renters before it is converted to a vacation rental.
Council member Octavious Scott concurred, particularly, he said, if houses built to be short-term rentals turn out to have incompatible designs from the surrounding homes in a particular neighborhood.
“If they don’t have a residential character, they look out of place,” he said.
According to Community Development Director Keith Gardner, as of June 22, there were 484 known, that is licensed, vacation home rentals in the city. That number had dropped to 455 on November 14, he said.
For some, that was an indicator that the current cap of 500 allowable short-term rental units needs not be tweaked whatsoever.
Krushat spoke on the issue, noting he was a short-term rental owner. He said his earlier advocacy of allowing market conditions to dictate what the city’s regulations was vindicated by the drop in the number of rentals. He said many people were portraying short-term rentals as some sort of a “bogeyman.”
Short-term rentals generate tax money to the city in the form of transient occupancy tax, he said.
Wright was skeptical about the concept of allowing unbridled short-term rental development near the national park.
The council heard from those who provided input in writing.
“The city needs to be friendlier to this kind of business,” George Mulopulos wrote.
Heather Vincent called for strict limits on vacation rentals tied to each neighborhood in the city.
Deborah Shay said runaway short-term rental unit development was ruining he city by “put[ting] profit over residents.”
The council gave indication it was leaning in favor of reducing the number of short-term rental licenses allowed per individual or company from the current five to three, with exceptions for those already having four or five licenses being grandfathered in as permitted to maintain that number. The council took no direct action. Instead, upon listening to the public, the council called for sending the matter back to the planning commission for further recommendations.
-Mark Gutglueck

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