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County Notes: Use Permits For Vacation Rentals?

The Mendocino Planning Commission is made up of five earnest, deliberative people, any one of whom would probably be an improvement over any of the Supervisors who appointed them. 

So it was disappointing to see them attempt to address the short-term rental problem with a narrowly construed zoning/permit approach instead of the much simpler and more enforceable Sonoma County idea which simply prohibits outside corporate ownership of such rentals. 

Nevertheless, the proposal to restrict airbnb style short term vacation rentals last Thursday at the Planning Commission meeting would “classify the occupancy of an entire single-family residence or accessory dwelling unit being used for transient habitation as ‘Transient Habitation – Lodging (Limited),’ a commercial use type. Under this proposed interpretation, a Major Use Permit would be required for all entire-home transient habitation use.”

The discussion became convoluted to such a degree that we had difficulty following much of the Commission’s legalistic discussion lead by deputy County Counsel Matt Kiedrowski. 

To give just a flavor of the confusing nature of the discussion, here’s the core of the original proposed resolution:

Paragraph D. “The Planning Commission further finds that Section 20.024.135(B) Transient Habitation—Lodging (Limited) shall be interpreted to include a Vacation Rental as defined by this resolution, whether such Vacation Rental is the primary single-family residence on the property, or an accessory dwelling unit. A Vacation Rental is permitted in the following zoning districts with approval of a Major Use Permit: S-R Suburban Residential District; R-R Rural Residential District; A-G Agricultural District; U-R Upland Residential District; R-L Rangeland District; F-L Forestland District; TPZ Timberland Production Zoning District; R-1 Single-Family Residential District; R-2 Two-Family Residential District; R-3 Multiple-Family Residential District; R-C Rural Community District; C-1 Limited Commercial District, and P-F Public Facilities District. 

Paragraph E. “This interpretation shall apply to all Vacation Rentals within the areas of the County governed by the Inland Zoning Code as of the date of adoption of this resolution; provided, however, that all Vacation Rentals that have received a business license and all related approvals, including but not limited to a major use permit, from Mendocino County prior to the date of this resolution shall be considered legal non-conforming uses pursuant to Mendocino County Code Chapter 20.204.”

Commissioner Marie Jones, who drafted the original resolution, said that about 3% of Mendo homes are now used as vacation rentals, adding, “and those are the legal ones.” That’s about 1,000 houses taken off the market and converted to vacation rentals in the last ten years, said Jones, adding that was more than the just over 800 new homes that were built in the County in that same time period. 

In other words, in the last ten years because of vacation rental conversions, Mendo has had a net loss of about 200 homes despite the more than 800 new ones built. Jones attributed the problem largely to the ease with which homeowner’s can make the conversions from residential to commercial rentals and the $20k to $30k per year or more that they can make on them while still being available for the owner’s own occasional vacation use. 

Ms. Jones noted that she personally rents five houses in the Fort Bragg area to local people and that whenever one becomes vacant, “I have more than 25 people come within an hour to look at it,” forcing her to make difficult choices about who to rent to.

Jones said that the use permit approach was selected because it would allow neighbors to have a say in the conversion process. They weren’t restricting any actual conversions.

Commissioner Diane Wiedeman, the other member of the ad hoc committee who drafted the use permit resolution, noted that the Supervisors have already reduced the cost of the use permit for these kinds of conversions to half of what a normal major use permit would cost.

Commissioner Cliff Paulin thought that the proposed resolution would do nothing to help alleviate the housing shortage and impose too much of a burden on homeowners wanting to convert.

Predictably several members of the wine-tourism-real estate axis opposed the idea.

Courtney DeGraff, speaking for the AV Winegrowers Association, told the Commission that any attempt to restrict or regulate the lodging industry in Anderson Valley would be a bad idea because it would restrict tourism, lower property values, reduce transient occupancy taxes and other horrible things.

Anderson Valley Vintner Kristy Charles had a similar viewpoint adding that restrictions would reduce transient rentals and associated attendance at wine and tourism events and other related local businesses. 

They urged that more housing be built, as if that’s any kind of simple finger-snap policy decision, not impose restrictions on vacation rentals.

They also complained that it can take a long time to process a use permit. One caller said that the use permit requirement would be hard to enforce and predicted that if they required use permits the lodging-wine-tourism-realty axis would sue the County.

Everyone agreed that a county-wide lack of housing has many negative side-effects, especially making it hard for public and private employers to attract new employees.

After extensive discussion, the Planning Commission voted 3-2 for the use permit resolution with grandfathering existing (inland) “non-conforming” vacation rentals and to require use permits only for rentals that are not on County roads. Or so we gathered. (We’re not sure; it might be the reverse.) 

Unfortunately, the original proposal and the Thursday discussion were confusing and legalistic with lots of back and forth on minor word changes. Apparently there is still some work to be done defining what a “vacation rental” is and what a new inland zoning ordinance will say. The proposal also does not address vacation rentals in the “coastal zone” where most of the conversions are.

Commission Chair Alison Pernell, who supported the use permit resolution in addition to its two preparers, concluded that there was much more work to do and the housing shortage problem “will not be solved by zoning alone.” Neglecting to note that it won’t be solved by zoning at all.

The question will probably come back to the Commission and the Supervisors at a later date for formal incorporation into Mendocino County Code.

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