Supervisors will decide fate of Airbnbs

Planning Commission recommends Board of Supervisors approve the short term rental ordinance adding new regulations on house rentals

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – The debate over Airbnbs in Three Rivers may seem trivial to most of Tulare County, but it is an issue that affects the rural community’s precarious balance of personal rights versus the public good.

The Tulare County Planning Commission had closed the public hearing for a proposed ordinance regulating Airbnbs on Oct. 16, but at least one Three Rivers resident didn’t get the message, even after he was asked by sheriff’s deputies to leave the room.

“You don’t have the authority to pass an ordinance to force obligations on private people,” the unidentified man yelled.

“I’m feeling threatened,” vice chair Bill Whitlatch said when the man refused to sit down after several requests were made and Whitlatch called for law enforcement to intervene.

“This is a kangaroo court,” the man exclaimed as he was escorted out of the meeting. “I don’t even need to watch you guys.”

The man’s combative comments were an illustration of how contentious the discussion about the short-term rentals ordinance has become in Three Rivers, home to 173 of the county’s 298 overnight and short term rental businesses.

Tulare County defines short term rentals, more commonly known as Airbnbs, as any rental of a private residence for less than 30 days. The proposed ordinance would require Airbnbs to implement additional fees, safety measures and signage at the cost of the property owner. Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA) staff argue that existing zoning ordinance requires any house rented for less than 30 days to pay a transient occupancy tax, also known as a hotel tax. Local residents, mostly those who own property in Three Rivers, argue that imposing additional regulations on how they can use their home infringes on the rights as private property owners.

Under the county’s proposed ordinance, all Airbnbs would be subject to pay the Transient Occupancy Tax, also known as a hotel tax, a one-time permit fee, and set limits on the occupancy. Airbnbs are allowed a maximum of two people per bedroom and 12 people overall overnight and an additional six guests during the day or limited to the number of parking spaces. Renters must observe quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., and are not allowed to have outdoor fires or hold special events, such as weddings, receptions, meetings, conferences, parties, etc.

RMA planning director Mike Washam presented an the most recent draft of the ordinance with updates made from both public and commissioner comments from the Oct. 16 public hearing. Changes to the ordinance included limiting outdoor fires to designated fire pits during the months of November to February, setting a minimum septic tank size based on the number of rooms, requiring trash bins to be dumped after each occupancy, limiting outdoor signs to 24 inches by 24 inches, and prohibiting off-site parking to limit the number of people at any given time.

Commissioner John Elliott, who lives in Three Rivers, said he didn’t think the ordinance went far enough with safety measures. He said many residents there are concerned about massive parties with hundreds of people being held at Airbnbs there. He said those fears of unchecked partygoers was realized on Oct. 31 in Orinda, Calif. east of Oakland, where five people were killed at a Halloween party at an Airbnb rental. According to the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office, more than 100 people showed up to the party after it was advertised on social media. By the time the deputies arrived, three people were already dead and there were people fleeing the scene in every direction.

“This is the kind of thing we are seeing in Three Rivers,” Elliott said, referring to large parties at rentals.

Elliott said it takes sheriff’s deputies an average of 55 minutes to respond to Three Rivers calls when it is life threatening. If it isn’t life threatening, he said they won’t come until the next morning. “We can’t control a situation like this because we don’t have active law enforcement [in Three Rivers].”

Elliott abstained from the vote on the ordinance which the planning commission voted 4-0 to recommend for approval to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. The item is tentatively scheduled for the Nov. 19 agenda of the Supervisors.

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