Del Mar short-term rental restrictions still on hold

Del Mar City Hall
(Jon Clark)

Last week, a Superior Court judge dismissed the city’s request for a writ of mandate to clarify whether it had to obey a state Coastal Commission directive to loosen those limits.


A Del Mar law to limit short-term rentals in residential areas is still on hold.

Last week, a Superior Court judge dismissed the city’s request for a writ of mandate to clarify whether it had to obey a state Coastal Commission directive to loosen those limits. The law can’t be implemented until the city wins the approval of the commission.

The Del Mar City Council discussed its possible next steps during a Feb. 18 closed session. City Attorney Leslie Devaney said no publicly disclosable actions were taken.

In the interim, short-term rental regulations in Del Mar will continue adhering to a forbearance policy previously adopted by the council that allows noncompliant short-term rentals to continue operating if they were active before April 4, 2016.

The conflict between Del Mar and the Coastal Commission began in 2017, when Del Mar council members approved a short-term rental ordinance that would have limited rentals in residential areas to 28 days per year, and required a minimum seven nights per booking. The ordinance would have allowed unlimited short-term rentals in residential-commercial, visitor-commercial and other commercial zones.

The ordinance went before the Coastal Commission, which oversees land use within the coastal zone boundary. The entire city of Del Mar is within the coastal zone. During a June 2018 hearing, the commission gave Del Mar conditional approval of the law, stipulating that council members increase their short-term rental limits in residential zones to 100 days per year with three-night minimum bookings.

“We could have accepted the 100 and three and worked our way backwards,” Del Mar Deputy Mayor Terry Gaasterland said, referring to possible negotiation to tweak those figures more to the city’s liking as time went on.

Accepting the Coastal Commission’s terms for residential short-term rentals, she added, would have been a better starting point than the current two-year-long court battle that exceeded $140,000 in city legal costs as of last November.

Before Gaasterland was elected, the council voted to ask San Diego County Superior Court for a writ of mandate to see if its local control over land use supersedes the Coastal Commission’s authority on this issue.

Council members and residents who supported the fight against the Coastal Commission have said they’re worried looser guidelines for short-term rentals could turn homes into de facto hotels. Cities across the country have been concerned about housing units essentially erased from the market by owners who rent them primarily through Airbnb or other short-term rental platforms.

At this week’s council meeting, Del Mar Mayor Ellie Haviland said she still thinks short-term rentals present an “existential threat” to the city, and that they should be restricted in residential zones.

Del Mar doesn’t currently have a complete registry of all city properties used as short-term rentals, but city code compliance officials compiled a list of about 30 properties in residential zones that were reported for short-term rental activity from 2016-19.

About one out of every eight of those property owners took the homeowners’ exemption, a tax break available for owner-occupied homes. Researchers have said homes that do not take that exemption are more likely to be rental properties or second homes.

Among the seven of every eight property owners in that sample size who did not take the homeowners’ exemption, many live in other California cities or in different states, based on a cross-reference with county property records.

The Coastal Commission acknowledged in court that rental properties have long been part of the culture in Del Mar, with summer horse racing and other local draws attracting visitors to the area.

“The commission found that the restrictions would reduce the supply and availability of STRs, would reduce their affordability, and would limit STRs in the most viable and desirable areas of the city, resulting in an adverse impact on public access,” Deputy Attorney General Hayley Peterson, representing the Coastal Commission, said in one court filing.

Deputies from the attorney general’s office also mentioned Measure J, a failed Del Mar ballot initiative to tax short-term rentals. Its opponents argued that those types of rentals “are part of the fabric of Del Mar and have never needed regulation.”

The Coastal Commission said the 100-day per year max and three-day minimum stay was still “consistent” with the desire of council members who wanted regulation. But the city argued in court that those limits were “arbitrarily determined” by the Coastal Commission.

“Del Mar does not restrict access to its coastline or beaches,” William C. Pate, an attorney representing the city, said in one court filing.

The commission provided a six-month term for its conditional approval in June 2018, and then granted a one-year extension that expired December 2019, as the city continued to wait for a court ruling.

Earlier this month, the court dismissed Del Mar’s request for a writ of mandate, agreeing with the Coastal Commission that it became a moot point following the expiration of the conditional approval. The state’s legal counsel argued that if the Del Mar still wants to add short-term rental regulations, the city will have to restart the Coastal Commission approval process.

The city argued to no avail that there were legal questions worth answering through the court’s consideration of the writ of mandate.