After some eight years of work on a vacation rental policy for major tourist destinations like Big Sur, Carmel Valley and Pebble Beach, the only disputes that remain are all the important ones.
The decision on whether to expand vacation rentals, also known as short-term rentals, in the unincorporated parts of Monterey County belongs to the Board of Supervisors, which takes recommendations from professional county staff and the county Planning Commission.
“Sometimes county government moves slow but eight years seems excessive,” Supervisor Luis Alejo said during a board discussion on Nov. 17. “At some point, we just have to make the tough decisions.”
Supervisor John Phillips laid out the dilemma by referring to his personal experience. “Philosophically, I am in favor of short-term rentals. Every time my wife and I have gone traveling we found one, even in Italy,” he said. “But I am not sure I want to have one next to me on my street.”
Meanwhile, Supervisor Mary Adams, whose district is where most of the vacation rental activity takes place, said she’s optimistic about a solution. She said some constituents are worried about the impact that a revolving stream of visitors would have on their neighborhoods, while others feel they have a right to rent out their homes on a limited basis. “I believe there exists a sweet spot where we can have a balanced approach,” she said.
Only 20 vacation rental permits have been issued across all unincorporated areas of Monterey County, but Airbnb listings, anecdotal evidence and the collection of transient occupancy tax from operators – money that flows into county coffers – indicate that rentals are far more common.
“How we are able to get income from an illegal activity is beyond me,” Adams said. “But that’s what we are doing.”
In June, the county Planning Commission was supposed to deliver a recommendation to the board on a set of three ordinances drafted by county staff. But the commission didn’t vote one way or another. Instead, it “[took] the unusual step of writing a letter” to the board, eight dense pages detailing what we don’t know about the impacts of expanding short-term rentals. These are questions that have been raised by community groups, housing advocates, tourism representatives and many others over a series of public meetings in recent years.
“We still lack clarity about the basis for several underlying assumptions in key policy areas,” the commission’s letter says.
The effect of rentals on affordable housing is one of the main blind spots. The letter calls the ordinance “speculative” and recommends a “detailed analysis” of how the supply of housing would be affected.
Another problem is enforcement. “The proposed ordinances provide new enforcement tools but no corresponding plan to implement them,” the Planning Commission’s letter reads, adding that enforcement should “not depend on neighbors reporting on one another.” Other problems include the potential for rental activity to diminish the character of a neighborhood and the possible need for special rules for areas with “unique circumstances,” such as the Monterey Dunes Colony near Moss Landing.
In their Nov. 17 meeting, the supervisors went issue by issue and kicked around ideas. Everyone agreed that “unique” neighborhoods should get special consideration and that one way to limit the impact on affordable housing and neighborhood character would be to cap the number of rentals per area.
There was also talk of allowing “freebies,” meaning that homeowners could rent out their properties for a limited number of times a year without requiring a major permit application. Adams suggested that tax revenue collected from rentals could support more code enforcement, like happens with cannabis revenue.
Now it’s back to the drawing board for county staff.