Supervisors to discuss Madera County’s Airbnb issues tomorrow

The Madera County Board of Supervisors will discuss whether or not homeowners should be allowed to rent out their homes, like this one, on a short-term basis through websites like Airbnb.
The Madera County Board of Supervisors will discuss whether or not homeowners should be allowed to rent out their homes, like this one, on a short-term basis through websites like Airbnb. Sierra Star

The Madera County Board of Supervisors will consider a change in the wording of the current residential zoning code, that if approved, would clarify the county’s position on allowing residential home owners to rent their homes to vacationers in Eastern Madera County.

The first reading of the zoning ordinance amendment will be at 10 a.m. tomorrow (July 11), in the supervisor’s chambers in the county government center, 200 W. 4th Street. The second public hearing will be at 10 a.m., July 18, when the supervisors are expected to vote on the amendment.

The specific wording being added to the zoning ordinance, having to do with residential short-term rentals, reads: “The rental of an entire single family dwelling, regardless of the tenure, length of tenancy, or purpose, is a permitted use in all residential zone districts.”

Madera County Planning Department Director Matt Treber said the county has never restricted or regulated the rental of single family dwellings on residential property.

“The current policy and practice has been to look at short-term rentals as a permitted single family use,” Treber said. “The proposed amendment will clarify the current policy by codifying short-term rentals as a permitted use in residential zone districts.”

Treber said that most homeowners providing short-term rentals have gotten a county business license and are paying Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) to the county.

The issue of absentee homeowners in residential areas providing short-term rentals through the popular and growing Airbnb website first surfaced about a year ago, when a couple in North Fork’s Cascadel Heights subdivision, Rick and Kris Hamilton, retained an attorney in an attempt to stop two neighbors from renting their homes to vacationers.

Fresno attorney Christopher A. Brown sent a letter, dated July 19, 2016, to County Counsel Regina A. Garza on behalf of the Hamiltons, in an attempt to avoid legal action because two homeowners in the neighborhood were not adhering to single family zoning restrictions, or Cascadel’s CCRs.

Brown said the nonconforming uses could negatively impact the Hamiltons and other neighbors the fundamental right to the quiet enjoyment of their property, and could have a detrimental effect on property values in the area.

Garza’s Aug. 15, 2016 response was that the section of the code was never intended as a restriction on the practice of renting residential property, and that the county has chosen not to regulate or restrict rentals of single family residential properties, regardless of whether those rentals be short term, medium term, or long term. Garza further said the county has no intention at this time to regulate short-term rentals in any portion of the county.

A suit was then filed against their neighbors in November, asking the court to force the neighbors to comply with zoning codes, and in April, a Madera County Superior Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting short-term rentals (less than 30 days), specific to this case. A final decision on the injunction has yet to be made.

Hamilton, along with other neighbors, have concerns over people they do not know being in the neighborhood. Residents have no way to check on these unsupervised renters through the Megan’s Law database, critics said, and they are noisy, have little regard for the potential of wildfires, are constantly smoking outside, and using unknown amounts of water during drought conditions.

“Regular long-term rentals are not the problem. We are only talking about non-owner occupied houses being rented on a nightly basis,” Hamilton said. “Most cities and counties have, or are working on tighter zoning standards to protect the integrity of residential neighborhoods. There are all kinds of examples that cities and counties have come up with to address short-term rentals. Mono and Mariposa counties have enacted guidelines and rules, but Madera County refuses.”

Former Madera County Supervisor Gary Gilbert lives in a residential subdivision on Road 223 between Oakhurst and North Fork, and chimed in on the issue last year.

“My property in Sierra Highlands is zoned residential, which allows me to have a single family dwelling,” Gilbert said. “It is not zoned for any commercial endeavor such as an auto body repair shop, or a hotel or motel. If I wanted to create a bed and breakfast at my home, I could request a special use permit from the county, the county would hold a public hearing so all my neighbors could have input. Then the county would look at my home and could require a number of things such as a fire sprinkler system, additional parking, and other improvements, which make sense as both vacationers and the neighborhoods need to be protected and safe.”

Gilbert said the rental movement has absentee homeowners renting out their entire residences for short-term rentals, without being in the home like a bed and breakfast. Some of the houses bring in 10-12 vacationers, or more.

“The problem is the county should not have the authority to issue a business license to people to operate a business that is a hotel or house in an area that is zoned for single family residence,” Gilbert said. “The county is collecting a bed tax on what is an illegal activity.”

Gilbert went on to say he agrees there are certain areas that the zoning could allow such activity, including Bass Lake.

There are about 175 short-term (vacation) rental homes in the specific Bass Lake area zoned for single family residences.

“Bass Lake is ideal for this because it is a heavy recreational area,” Gilbert said. “But it’s wrong to allow these operations in what are predominantly owner occupied, residential areas like Cascadel Heights and other residential subdivisions. The county needs to look at areas where this may be appropriate and areas where it is not appropriate. The county should work, as many other cities and counties are, to preserve and protect residential zoning for full time residents. The Airbnb short-term rental issue has identified a major problem for Madera County. The problem is that the county is collecting over $1 million annually from the Transient Occupancy Tax, of which some is from illegal activity, such as Airbnb short-term rentals of single family, non owner occupied residential homes.”

Gilbert said the the county’s solution to protect its general fund revenue, that is derived from vacation rentals in the Bass Lake recreational area, will be to punish all county residents if this zoning ‘clarification’ is passed.

“By ‘clarifying’ their past zoning errors, the county will not just allow, but encourage short-term rentals countywide, and rental use for ‘any’ purpose,” Gilbert said. “I would highly recommend that the county slow down, take a deep breath, and come up with solutions for the Bass Lake recreation area vacation rentals, where the county collects substantial TOT dollars, develop policy and procedures that provide real auditing and collection of TOT dollars to insure that the county is receiving all the funds that they are entitled to, and ensure that there is affordable housing and long-term residential rentals for our work force, and that they do not allow for short-term rentals in residential zoning without public hearings. That would allow residents and county staff to have input into a special permitting process that would both protect the residents and the guests who would occupy the dwelling.”

Gilbert also hopes the supervisors will clarify what is meant by the rentals are permitted for any purpose.

“That is wide open to many different interpretations and may currently require a Conditional Use Permit,” Gilbert said. “What is needed is for the county to get this right, and to do that through a thoughtful, inclusive process, which this does not appear to be. Residents have an expectation as to what Residential Zoning means and meant when they purchased their owner occupied homes. This proposed ‘clarification’ appears to be a direct change to the normal understanding of what Residential Zoning represents.”

The amendments came before the Madera Planning Commission who voted 4-0 to make the change earlier this year. District 5 Commissioner John Reed recused himself from the vote.