By: Edward Sifuentes
June 27, 2016
It’s a struggle that plays out every summer when tourists invade small seaside towns — how to accommodate and profit from the visiting hordes while still preserving the community’s character and charm.
Del Mar is navigating those rocky waters as it tries to regulate short-term vacation rentals, whose increasing popularity is a boon for landlords and merchants but vexing for year-round residents who say their quiet neighborhoods are under assault.
Vacation rentals aren’t mentioned in Del Mar’s city code, which means technically they’re prohibited. Still, at least 130 are believed to be operating in the city — some for decades — and officials have never attempted to shut them down.
The status quo might have persisted if not for the advent of websites like Airbnb and VRBO.com, which led to more and more property owners and investors deciding to turn their homes into mini hotels.
The Del Mar City Council recently formed a subcommittee that will weigh options and draft rules for regulating such rentals, ranging from allowing them in limited areas or under certain conditions to officially banning them outright.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Councilman Al Corti. “The problem is it exists and we can’t allow it to exist under the current code.”
Two council members — Terry Sinnott and Dwight Worden — have been appointed to work on the draft regulations. They were asked to bring their proposal back to the council by August.
“I think we should provide the opportunity for the whole community — industry, tenants and residents — to try to make this work … to come up with a phased approach knowing that ultimately if we can’t get this problem solved, we’ll go to much more strenuous regulations,” Sinnott said.
Worden emphasized his position that the rentals are already illegal in residential areas. He’s skeptical new regulations will work because vacation rentals are not consistent with Del Mar’s Community Plan, the city’s blueprint for development.
“As I see it, those who want to allow short-term rentals in residential zones need to bring forth proposed code amendments to change the rules to allow them,” Worden said. “Then, if council adopts the changes … short-term rentals would for the first time be legal in residential zones under the new regulations.”
Mayor Sherryl Parks agreed and also expressed reservations about the city being able to regulate vacation rentals because of lack of resources, noting that the city has only one code enforcement officer.
“I don’t think businesses are allowed in the residential zones,” Parks said. “If we allow short-term rentals, what is to prevent us from allowing a dental office or a psychiatrist (office) or other businesses?”
In April, the city adopted a moratorium on new rentals while the council considers regulating the industry. Officials held a workshop last week attended by nearly 80 people who provided input, including some who said the rentals should be severely restricted — with 30-day minimum stays — or not allowed at all.
Banning the rentals would probably face opposition from the state’s Coastal Commission, which favors them as a cheaper alternative to hotels.
City Attorney Leslie Devaney said that if the council decides not to regulate the rentals and instead bans them, the city would have phase them out over time. She later said more legal research is needed to determine how long that period might be.
“Because you have allowed them to operate for a while, then in order to take that right away, you’re going to have to amortize it over a significant amount of time,” Devaney said.
Whatever policy the council decides to pursue, it will have be written into city code, Devaney said.
About 50 people attended last week’s City Council meeting. Many of them were vacation rental owners and managers, who said some regulations would be acceptable but some limits, such as a seven-day minimum stay, would be unacceptable.
“We are not for a minimum length of stay because that would turn our town into a ghost town,” said Kimberly Jackson, who owns a vacation rental unit and manages rentals for others. “The average length of stay in San Diego is three nights. If we put a limit of seven nights, people are going to go somewhere else instead and spend their money somewhere else.”
A search of Airbnb and VRBO.com, as well as conversations with property managers, turned up 133 vacation rental listings in Del Mar earlier this year, city officials said. Some residents say they’ve found as many as 300 listings on such websites, which would mean that about 15 percent of the city’s housing stock (about 2,000 units) is being used for short term rentals.