Del Mar puts short-term rentals on hold

Del Mar has placed a 45-day moratorium on new short-term vacation rentals.
Del Mar has placed a 45-day moratorium on new short-term vacation rentals.
( / Union-Tribune file photo)

With the city’s zoning code lacking clarity and some community members calling for change, the Del Mar City Council voted unanimously on April 4 to approve a temporary moratorium on short-term vacation rentals.

Under the temporary ban, current short-term rentals can stay in operation, but no new rentals can open. The emergency ban — which will last 45 days and can be extended for up to six months — enables city staff to collect data, conduct further research, and craft land use and operational regulations for short-term rentals, while maintaining the status quo.

“All this does is say, ‘Time out!’ People who are currently renting, they can continue to rent, but new people who want to start up a new rental, please postpone it until we get our house in order, so to speak,” Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott said. “I think it’s a reasonable thing to do to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

The city’s zoning code does not define or list short-term rentals as an allowed use, yet another section of the code allows residents to rent rooms in their homes for undefined periods of time. Although the existing code is unclear, a number of residences in Del Mar have been used as short-term rentals, with the practice likely predating the city’s incorporation.

Short-term rentals are regarded as less expensive and more flexible than hotels, but the growing number can also be attributed to the ease and effectiveness of online advertising, Adam Birnbaum, the city’s planning manager, has explained in the past.

Dozens of Del Mar rentals are advertised on websites such as Airbnb and Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO). There are roughly 142 rentals listed on both sites, according to a city staff report. They are scattered throughout the city, with the highest concentration in the beach area.

The issue has caused controversy up and down the coast.

Del Mar’s northern neighbors, Solana Beach and Encinitas, were among the first cities in San Diego County to set limits on short-term rentals. Both cities initially sought to ban rentals, but the California Coastal Commission backed them as a more affordable alternative to hotels, thus increasing public access to the beach.

Solana Beach adopted an ordinance in 2003 that prohibits rentals for fewer than seven days and requires owners to obtain a permit and pay an annual fee. Encinitas adopted a similar ordinance in 2005 that also requires owners to obtain a permit and pay an annual fee. Both ordinances also require owners to post their contact information on the outside of the building and to respond to complaints within a certain amount of time.

With rentals in Del Mar, a number of citizens have expressed concerns regarding noise, trash, parking and the changing community character.

“I understand a lot of people are invested as property managers or purchasing homes to make money,” said Del Mar resident Barbara Johansen. In the Beach Colony, where she lives, some residents live in their homes all yearlong. Other homes are used as rentals part-time or full-time.

“I think the moratorium would be good because there are two sides two the issue,” she said. “I’m really worried about maintaining the exclusiveness of Del Mar.”

“Maintain our community,” agreed Del Mar resident Robin Crabtree, who argued against changes to the residential zones and requested rentals be prohibited for less than 30 days. “I want to focus on all of the residents of Del Mar and all of our neighborhoods of Del Mar, and not just the individuals or the property managers that are trying to make money. I understand that, but we need to think of all of Del Mar.”

Others, however, questioned the need for the temporary ban.

“I don’t think the moratorium is necessary,” said Brenda Sampiere, a Del Mar property owner who rents her home. “It just seems really over-the-top. I think we should just get to work, figure out the problem and start finding some solutions.”

As an urgency ordinance, the council had to conclude “that there is an immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare.”

“Is it a health emergency? Is it a safety emergency? Is it a welfare emergency?” Debbie Church, another Del Mar property owner who rents her home, asked. “I’m just brainstorming. I couldn’t come up with anything that reaches that threshold.

“Does this need to be discussed? Yes. Do we need to work on this? Yes. Is it a problem for some properties? Yes. As a whole, are short-term rentals good for this community? Absolutely.”

A four-fifths vote was required. The council voted 4-0 to approve the urgency ordinance, with Councilman Al Corti absent.

“For those adjacent neighbors, this is a public welfare and public safety issue,” said Councilman Don Mosier. “We don’t yet know the extent of that. We’ve had numerous complaints, but the complaints are probably fewer than a dozen. We need more data to assess how serious the problem is and how best to address it.”

“It’s time to have the council speak to those who are down there and dealing with the pressures of the short-term rentals,” Mayor Sherryl Parks said. “We get the message. We’re going to stop this for a while and do a good job to the alleviate the problem.”

Like the speakers, the council was also divided on the issue. While giving direction to help staff develop new regulations, Parks and Councilman Dwight Worden said they would not amend the municipal code to allow and regulate short-term rentals, while Sinnott and Mosier said they would.

“To me, to say that we’re going to import what at heart is a commercial use — short-term rentals — into the residential zone, starts to breakdown the whole fabric of how we designed the zoning and community plan system to work,” Worden said. “For me, it’s not a use that feels comfortable in the residential zones.”

“I think we’re in a situation where we’re going to have to do some regulation,” Sinnott said. “I don’t like regulation, generally, but I think we’re in a situation where we need to propose a workable solution that allows some rentals and how that should be in Del Mar.”

During the discussion, council members gave varying direction on short-term rental locations, limitations, frequency, duration, occupancy limits, permits, enforcement and other issues. They agreed to continue to the conversation in the community and also hold public workshops during the process of drafting new rules.