Legal battle heightens over Del Mar vacation rentals

Short-term rentals have become controversial in Del Mar and other cities in recent years.
(Union-Tribune file photo)

Del Mar’s legal battle over short-term rentals (STRs) is becoming more pitched thanks to a new round of filings and accusations that have deepened the litigious divide.

The latest developments include the city’s first response to the lawsuit initiated by a group of disgruntled residents nearly two months ago, and a splinter case in which that group’s lawyer has accused city officials of dragging their feet in meeting a wide-ranging information request for all communications by all city councilmembers going back seven years.

The bulk of the request centers on the council’s May 1 ratification of its April 17 ruling that laid the groundwork for the policy that the council has since continued to give shape to. The council’s most recent move was to target May 2018 as the beginning of the new policy, which will limit full-home rentals, single-room rentals and home “swaps” to seven-day minimums that cannot exceed 28 days per calendar year. Rentals that last more than 30 days will not be affected.

Years of outcry over the explosion of short-term rentals made possible by websites such as AirBnB and came to a head this year. The city council tackled the issue after the city’s planning commission said in February that city code did not provide enough information for them to interpret whether short-term rentals are allowed in residential zones. That sent the issue back to the council on April 17. Four hours of heated testimony boiled down to a 4-1 ruling to interpret 40-year-old city codes to mean — despite a long history to the contrary — that short-term rentals were never allowed in nearly every residential part of the city.

When the council ratified that ruling on May 1, Mayor Terry Sinnott demanded that the motion stipulate his opposition, saying that the council’s action lacked data and that the California Coastal Act would compel state officials to intervene.

Several of the most vocal rental supporters then created the Del Mar Alliance for the Preservation of Beach Access and Village and filed suit in San Diego Superior Court. Their June 1 lawsuit claims that the city’s actions violate two state mandates: the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the California Coastal Act.

CEQA requires lengthy review whenever a proposal would have a significant environmental impact, including changes to land-use regulations. The Coastal Act requires beach jurisdictions to guarantee access to coastal areas.

Throughout the legal proceedings, the city council has continued to hone the rentals framework despite repeated — and increasingly heated — entreaties to reverse course.

On July 20, the city responded to the Alliance’s lawsuit. In its response, the city rebuffs the Alliance’s depiction that the policy constitutes a ban, saying that they “interpreted existing zoning ordinances.” The response also repeats the city’s position that its actions are not subject to CEQA and the Coastal Act. It further stipulates that the Alliance lacks legal standing and failed to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit.

That lawsuit has now led to a new one.

Central to the Alliance’s case is a May 4 request for all city communications on STRs — including the emails of every city councilmember — dating back to January 2010.

“The reason it’s expansive is because the ban is very broad, very bogus,” said Alliance lawyer Cory Briggs. “They’re basically trying to rewrite history, and we wanted the full history.”

On May 15, the city responded that the lone city employee available to handle the request would need 45 days to compile the 3,500 emails and 1,000 pages of other documents. Those 45 days were up June 29. That day came and went without a response.

On July 18, Briggs filed suit under the California Public Records Act. The following day, the city’s attorneys countered that Briggs was reading the law incorrectly and sent him a portion of the documents. They followed up a few days later with the remaining pages.

Briggs expects to need several weeks to review the documents. He does not intend to drop the new case now that the city responded; at a minimum, he said he will petition the court for the city to cover attorney fees.

“Assuming that they gave us all the documents, we will still ask the judge to rule that they waited too long,” Briggs said. “We have lots of reasons to be distrustful of this particular city. If we have any reason to suspect they have withheld even a single piece of paper, we’re going to press forward. My clients are all done being bullied.”