Madera County Supervisors work towards clearing up Airbnb rental issues

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

After a first reading and a long line of supporters for short-term vacation rentals spoke Tuesday, the Madera County Board of Supervisors will vote on a change in the wording of the current residential zoning code at 10 a.m., July 18.

If approved, the change in the code will clarify the county’s position on allowing residential homeowners to rent their homes to vacationers, with the majority of such rentals in the Mountain Area.

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.”

On Tuesday, supervisors heard from a number of realtors that manage large numbers of short-term vacation rentals, including Steve Welch (Bass Lake Realty - 62 vacation rentals) and Brad Ditton (Century 21 and Sierra Home Rentals - 100 vacation rentals). The realtors stressed the economic value of the rentals, not only to the homeowners, but the county as well due to taxes, the employment of many people from housekeepers and a variety of maintenance people, and the money they spend while in the area. The majority of these rentals are at Bass Lake.

“Our market is primarily families which reduces the chance of late night noise issues,” Welch told the supervisors.

Ditton said he has been in the rental and real estate business for 40 years, and in recent years has gotten out of the long-term rental business.

“For our vacation rentals, we don’t let people book reservations before we have an interview with them and to check that we have not had any problems with them in the past,” Ditton said.

A number of people who spoke against short-term vacation rentals had nothing but praise for the business and individuals that have stringent guidelines for their short-term rentals. Some people are not happy, however, with rentals that have ‘absentee’ homeowners who provide very little supervision over the home.

Treber said the current zoning has been in place at lest 26 years and probably longer - and that his department has received complaints on three homes that he is aware of.

“We sent out code enforcement investigators every time and in each instance the properties were clean, cars were parked in the driveways and the properties were clean,” Treber said.

One homeowner from North Fork’s Cascadel Heights said he and his wife moved there to be in a nice, quiet area for their retirement. But now, they worry about noise and a lot of cars in the neighborhood and people they don’t know due to two homes in the subdivision being rented to vacationers. “We are a residential area, not a commercial area, and we would like you to take a closer look at this situation,” said the homeowner.

Former supervisor Gary Gilbert said his issue is about zoning in residential areas, not with the professionals who rent primarily in the Bass Lake area.

“I live in Sierra Highlands, a 26-lot subdivision that is zoned residential - there is a reason to separate residential and commercial,” Gilbert said. “It is not zoned for any commercial endeavor such as an auto body repair shop. 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 and the county could look at my home and require a number things such as a fire sprinkler system and additional parking. But these short term rentals with absentee property owners are different from a B&Bs. The neighbors do not know who is in the house and do not have an emergency number to call.”

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 rental homes in the 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 should work, as many other cities and counties are, to preserve and protect residential zoning for full-time residents.”

Some of the short-term property owners urged the county to be more proactive, and have many of the people renting their homes pay their share of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT).

County Treasurer-Tax Collector Tracy Kennedy Desmond said her department has sent out 140 code enforcement letters to people renting a house or a room on a short-term basis in the past three weeks.

“People are responding to these letters and many are getting a business license and getting set up to collect appropriate TOT taxes,” Desmond said.

Treber said nothing limits subdivisions from adopting Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CCRs) against short-term rentals, but it would be a civil matter outside the jurisdiction of the supervisors.

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 Madera 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 had no intention at that 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 that 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.”

“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 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.” When the amendment comes back to the supervisors, the words “or purpose” will be omitted.

Even though Garza said she felt there was no conflict of interest, District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who owns a house that does short-term rentals, recused himself from voting so there would be no chance of someone accusing him of any conflicts. The rental operation is run by his children and he has no financial gain from the rental of the house, he said.

Prior to going to the supervisors, the county planning commission voted 4-0 to make the change.