Del Mar moves ahead with short-term rentals ordinance

Del Mar is ceding no ground in its ordinance to regulate and restrict short-term vacation rentals as the conflict heads toward two new fronts: review by the California Coastal Commission and adjudication in state court.

At its first hearing on short-term rentals (STRs) since fielding pointed critiques from the city planning commission and Coastal Commission staff, Del Mar’s city council on Oct. 16 voted 4-1 to leave untouched its fiercely disputed ordinance that would require short-term rentals in nearly every residential area to last no fewer than seven days at a time and total no more than 28 days per year.

The ordinance cannot take effect until the Coastal Commission amends it into Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program, the planning document that carries out the terms of California’s Coastal Act of 1976. Under the council’s Oct. 16 decision, STRs that were operating before the city’s April 2016 moratorium will be allowed to continue until the Coastal Commission certifies the amendment.

Del Mar has wrangled with short-term rentals over the past three years, the issue growing into perhaps the most divisive in the city’s recent history, entrenched as a seemingly irreconcilable conflict between property rights and the sharing economy on one side and the sanctity of Del Mar’s residential character on the other.

The council’s landmark decision in April — that Del Mar’s 40-year-old planning documents do not allow the kind of high-turnover rentals made possible by AirBnB, VRBO and other online platforms in any residential zone except for a two-block stretch of Stratford Court — did little to quiet the fracas. When the regulations started to take shape this summer, a group of disgruntled homeowners immediately filed suit in state court. And when the ordinance reached the city planning commission last month, its five members refused to sign off, saying the 7/28 timeframe is too restrictive and that the overall approach lacks a basis in data. Coastal Commission staff raised similar concerns in a letter sent the day before the planning commission’s Sept. 12 hearing, recommending that rentals be allowed for less than seven days at a time and that the 28-day cap be raised to 60 or 90 days.

Those critiques added fuel to the debate heading into the council’s Oct. 16 hearing. Nearly 120 letters poured into city hall and more than 40 people testified. STR proponents framed their arguments around Del Mar’s long history of rentals as a linchpin of tourism, and the Coastal Act’s mandate to guarantee diverse access to the beach. Supporters of the ordinance railed against the hundreds of de facto hotels that have proliferated throughout the city, with most preferring to see STRs be banished altogether but content with the 7/28 framework as a tolerable compromise.

After nearly two hours of exhaustive testimony, the council remained unmoved.

“There are not a lot of issues that are worth dying on the fence for, but there are some,” said Councilman Dwight Worden, who has set the course on the council’s direction on STRs. “In Del Mar, protecting the integrity of our Community Plan’s primary directive — to protect our residential neighborhoods — that is one that’s worth dying on the fence for.”

As he has since April, Mayor Terry Sinnott cast the dissenting vote.

“This proposal to me is not a compromise,” he said. “I’ve just got a tremendous amount of input from a lot of folks that this is not the right way to go. We can’t be doing something that’s going to split the community and I’m afraid this is.”

Central to the planning commission’s rebuke last month: a unanimous recommendation to postpone the ordinance for a year in order to investigate the economic and neighborhood impacts of short-term rentals.

While councilmembers weren’t entirely hostile to gathering more data, they had little interest in further delay and second-guessing.

“It’s time for us to put a stake in the ground, get the approvals started, go to the Coastal Commission,” said Councilman Dave Druker. “If we don’t start now, we’re never going to get there.”

Review by the Coastal Commission isn’t expected before the end of this year. With the usual back-and-forth revisions, it could be early summer before Del Mar’s ordinance takes effect.

The Coastal Commission has ruled on dozens of STR policies across the state over the past decade —typically, in favor of looser restrictions than what Del Mar is proposing. The agency does not, however, have an explicit position on vacation rentals, and the latest round of commissioner appointments appears to have shifted the balance in the other direction.

While that bureaucratic tussle plays out, Del Mar will be girding for a protracted and pricy battle in San Diego Superior Court. Despite legal expenses on pace to far exceed the city’s budget, several residents at this week’s hearing urged the council not to back down from litigation — a call that the council heeded.

“I’m a woman who was elected to preserve the values of the residential community,” Councilwoman Sherryl Parks. “I will be brave and stand up to these threatening, ominous lawsuits.”

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