Planning commission balks at rentals proposal

In a stinging — albeit non-binding — rebuke of Del Mar’s efforts to regulate and restrict short-term rentals, the city planning commission on Sept. 12 refused to endorse the proposed framework, calling instead for a year-long investigation into rentals’ economic and neighborhood impacts.

Under the city’s proposed framework, short-term rentals (STRs) in residential zones must last at least seven days and cannot exceed 28 days per year. While the city council hammered out its proposal, a moratorium has allowed rentals to continue at properties that were active before April 2016.

But seeing that framework for the first time on Sept. 12, commissioners chafed at the lack of detail and seemingly arbitrary time frames. In a unanimous vote, they recommended that the council extend the moratorium for a year, require STRs to register with the city, and gather a wide range of data.

“One hopes that policy flows from good data,” said Commissioner Don Countryman. “We don’t have any data on zone analysis, the number of rentals, their location, their occupancy. There’s no data regarding the number or locations of complaints. We have none of that information, and yet we’re willing, for some reason, to adopt an ordinance [for] which there has been no study, no economic analysis … on the presumption that this is somehow correct and reasonable. I don’t see anything reasonable about this ordinance at this level of restriction.”

Tuesday night’s hearing began with a presentation from Senior Planner Amanda Lee. At various points, commissioners asked her about the number of active STRs, their economic impact and the basis for the council’s time frames. For nearly all of their questions, she had no information to give.

“I’m sort of amazed that we are asked to … make a recommendation on an ordinance when we aren’t given any information about justification for the contents of the ordinance,” said Commissioner Nathan McCay. “I find it somewhat insulting, actually, that this city council would send this and force you to stand up here and not be able to answer the questions that are most critical to deciding whether an ordinance should be passed. To not know the economic impact of what is proposed, it’s positively astonishing.”

The commission split its decision into two motions. The first motion — to extend the moratorium and collect data — passed unanimously. The second motion was to rebuff the council’s proposal as presented. That motion passed 4-1, with chairman Ted Bakker basing his dissent on the mandate in Del Mar’s Community Plan to safeguard the city’s residential character.

“This is what makes our community of Del Mar so special and unique. We need to preserve this for today and tomorrow. We cannot build a community based on short-term renters,” he said. “It is so important to me, the family character, why we live here and raise our children.”

But faced with a random assortment of anecdotal accounts, McCay said he had no way of knowing the degree to which — if at all — STRs impose that threat.

“I agree the special residential character is something that’s important and should be preserved, but until it’s established that it is being impinged, we are solving a problem that we haven’t proven even exists,” he said.

STR supporters have fumed over the lack of data throughout the city council’s work to devise its framework. Feeling unheard and ignored, STR proponents have pinned their hopes on the California Coastal Commission. The agency has domain over the amendment to Del Mar’s Local Coastal Program that will be required in order for the city to enact its policy.

On Monday, Sept. 11, the Coastal Commission made its first official foray into Del Mar’s fray, echoing those concerns about the lack of data. The Sept. 11 letter from Coastal Planner Sarah Richmond also asserts that Coastal Commission staff have “serious concerns about, and would not likely support” the seven-day minimum rental and the annual cap of 28 days.

“[G]iven the proposed amendment, a person would not be able to stay in a short-term rental in Del Mar for a weekend getaway, which may be the only time he/she can take off from work or school and spend time on the coast,” the letter says. “Thus, while some regulatory controls and management provisions for short-term rentals may be needed, the proposed amendment appears overly restrictive and would not provide the public with adequate and affordable visitor-serving facilities.”

However, seven-day minimums have won Coastal Commission approval elsewhere in the state, including in Solana Beach. And, as city planner Lee explained at Tuesday night’s hearing, Coastal Commission staff — who merely issue guidance to the voting commissioners — have acknowledged that the agency’s position is “evolving” alongside a shift among its commissioners.

Hoping for the Coastal Commission’s review by the end of this year, the city council had planned to give the STR proposal its first reading at the council’s Oct. 2 meeting.

While the council is not beholden to the planning commission’s concerns, Councilman Dave Drucker would rather work with the planning commission to figure out what changes should be made.

“My appetite is to modify this,” he said Wednesday morning, Sept. 13. “The data would be interesting. I just think there’s some other ways to regulate this and provide what the community wants.”