Visalia council at odds over Airbnb regulations

(Rigo Moran)

City council members express discord over the necessity of strengthening current zoning laws on short-term rentals

VISALIA – When it comes to Airbnbs in Visalia, city council members have reached a disagreement on whether the city’s zoning ordinance on short-term rentals needs to be reinforced or left as is.

At the Feb. 20 council meeting, Paul Bernal Community Development Director and Senior Planner Josh Dan recommended additional measures to be added to the ordinance to strengthen its effectiveness. The zoning ordinance was approved in October 2023 and recently went into effect. The ordinance requires that short-term rental (STR) operators apply for a permit to use their house as an Airbnb or any similar rental.

According to the city planners, data received from Santa Rosa, Calif. indicates that the council could strengthen the ordinance by requiring a cap on the number of STR units allowed in the city. This would require that neighborhoods have a maximum number of allowable STRs, and prevent multiple STRs from being located near one another.

Mayor Brian Poochigian and Vice Mayor Brett Taylor voiced concern over the need to add further bureaucracy to the situation. Council members Liz Wynn, Steve Nelson and Emmanuel Hernandez Soto said they would like to see further restrictions put on STRs in Visalia to “preserve the integrity of neighborhoods.”

“I don’t like the ordinance, I was the sole no vote when we did it back in December. The only reason I voted for it last night was because we weren’t doing anything,” Poochigian said in an interview with The Sun-Gazette. “If we are going to go after bad actors, we need to go after bad actors. But, if we are just going to go after one type of individual, I don’t think that’s right and that’s why I didn’t support it back in December.”

There have been a few public comments at city council meetings about issues with Airbnb rentals, but few issues with “party houses,” Poochigian told The Sun-Gazette.

“We created this policy originally to get rid of the bad actors,” Taylor said at the meeting. “Now we are asking to come back and become more strict on business and I think we are going to be spending a lot of our staff’s time spinning our wheels.”

The council was informed that just one complaint had been filed about a “bad actor,” which was the original reason for the ordinance, according to Taylor. In an interview with The Sun Gazette, he said a resident had come to the council meeting last year to complain about a short-term rental property that was being used as a party house. Complaints have continued about the property, but no longer due to noise. The council was told that the complaints now bordered on “high school pettiness.”

“If the issues rise, if there are more bad apples, then we correct it,” Taylor added. However, Councilmember Wynn was not in favor of either of those takes.

“Respectfully disagreeing with the two of you, but we have a short-term rental in our neighborhood, and it doesn’t cause any problems but it does detract so much that our HOA is going to take this on,” Wynn said. “So I disagree.”

From her standpoint, she said the allowance of short-term rentals in neighborhoods takes away from the families who live there, because they don’t know who is going to be residing in short-term rentals at any given time; which could lead parents to questioning if they should allow their children to play outside if they don’t know who is staying in STRs.

“I think we are losing sight of the fact that residential is designed for growing families, it really wasn’t designed for Airbnb,” Councilmember Nelson said. “I would always advocate for the integrity of our neighborhoods.”

An issue that Nelson commented on is the fact that STRs can also decrease available parking space. The ordinance contains language that bars renters from parking on the street and limits the number of cars allowed to the availability of off-street parking. The ordinance also specifies that any property used as an STR must provide a minimum of two parking spaces off the street.

It is not entirely clear how many STRs there are in the city limits. Dan advised that the City should conduct an outreach program to ensure that operators of STRs understand the new ordinance which went into effect in December.

“As of today, we have 16 applications, 11 of which are approved, and one that we believe will be denied, just because of what they are asking,” Dan said. “We have come across that there are instances where they won’t disclose the address of where the STR is occurring.”

Bernal added that he had spoken with a representative from Airbnb to find out if there was a way for the company to disclose addresses so that the city could target outreach efforts and was informed that doing so was against Airbnb policy. The representative told Bernal that the company would accept a flier notifying operators of STRs of mandatory compliance with the permitting process and would distribute it.

Ultimately, the council decided to continue monitoring the information and hear back from city planning in six months to re-examine whether there is a need for the council to add additional requirements to the ordinance.

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