New lawsuit meets Del Mar’s ordinance on short-term rentals

Del Mar’s controversy over short-term vacation rentals has borne its third lawsuit, this time over the city council’s decision to forego environmental review of the ordinance it adopted earlier this month.

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court on Nov. 15, contests the city’s decision to declare the ordinance exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act. CEQA requires exhaustive analysis of proposals that will have significant environmental impacts, including changes to zoning and land-use regulations.

As with the previous two lawsuits, the new lawsuit has been brought by the Del Mar Alliance for the Preservation of Beach Access and Village, a group of homeowners who rallied together in May as the city council took its course to restrict short-term rentals.

The ordinance, approved on Oct. 16 and formally adopted on Nov. 6, requires short-term rentals (STRs) in nearly all of the city’s residential zones to last no fewer than seven days at a time and not total more than 28 days per year. Rentals of 30 days or more will not be affected.

The city council — aside from Mayor Terry Sinnott — has defended the measure as necessary to preserve Del Mar’s residential character. Its supporters stress that the 28/7 framework targets the “mini-hotels” that have emerged thanks to websites such as AirBnB and VRBO while still allowing homeowners to rent their homes while they’re out of town.

While the lawsuit came in response to the ordinance’s adoption, its premise is rooted in the city council’s 4-1 ruling in April that Del Mar’s 40-year-old planning documents do not allow homes to be rented out for less than 30 days at a time — an interpretation STR supporters say subverts the intent of the city’s founders, not to mention the city’s long history as a tourist mecca.

Cory Briggs, the Alliance’s attorney, argues that by taking the position that STRs have always been prohibited and will now be allowed for the first time, the city is thus creating a new land use — which by definition necessitates CEQA review.

“You’re creating a number of impacts: land-use conflicts, recreational conflicts, urban decay problems with the loss of business,” Briggs told the council at its Nov. 6 meeting. “… All of those ripple effects have to be analyzed in an environmental document. You don’t get to say that there is an exemption and simply wave your hands as if CEQA didn’t apply.”

The first lawsuit, filed June 1, cites CEQA and the California Coastal Act in challenging the city council’s April interpretation of Del Mar’s 40-year-old planning documents. The second lawsuit arose six weeks later, alleging that the city took too long to respond to the Alliance’s request for all STR-related documents and communications dating back seven years. And when the city did respond, Briggs says, many of the documents were illegible. The city later sent legible documents, he said, but the suit is still pending.

“We offered to settle the case, all they had to do was pay my legal fees,” Briggs said. “Apparently they would rather pay their outside lawyer to continue the case.”

All three cases are assigned to Judge Katherine Bacal. Briggs said attorneys will be meeting with Bacal within the next few weeks to set a hearing schedule.

In the meantime, the city’s STR ordinance will not go into effect until the Coastal Commission amends it into Del Mar’s “Local Coastal Program (LCP),” a state planning document that dictates land use for nearly all of Del Mar. The Coastal Commission hasn’t yet said when it will evaluate Del Mar’s ordinance, but it is not expected for at least several months.

Dozens of Del Mar homes are lawfully executing short-term rentals under a moratorium that has allowed unrestricted rentals at homes that were being rented out prior to April 4, 2016. Earlier this month, the council decided that those homes can continue to do so until the Coastal Commission certifies its ruling on the LCP amendment or until November 2019, whichever is sooner.

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