Airbnb ordinance headed back to planning commission for 'fine tuning'

The short-term vacation rental ordinance will be sent back to the Planning Commission for further revisions.

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The Winters City Council was unwilling to move forward on an ordinance that would regulate the operation of short-term vacation rentals organized through online platforms like Airbnb at the Tuesday, Aug. 20 meeting. The ordinance will return to the Winters Planning Commission for further revisions on Tuesday, Sept. 24 to revisit key measures.

The city’s push to regulate Airbnbs in Winters began in July 2018, and an initial ordinance proposal modeled after Napa city code was slated to be drafted by the planning commission in April for adoption by the city council before summer this year.

Public scrutiny led the commissioners to revise the proposal with input from local Airbnb hosts after the planned April vote was delayed, however, the hosts who contributed to revisions still opposed the ordinance when it was brought before the city council earlier this month.

City Contract Planner Dave Dowswell, who delivered the staff report introducing the ordinance for adoption, said it was a “pared down” version of the original proposal. Dowswell’s Aug. 6 report outlined the changes made over two months of revisions. Revisions produced a simplified ordinance, but the backbone of the regulations remained untouched.

City Manager John Donlevy told the Express the planning commission will ‘fine tune’ the ordinance per the council’s recommendations. The Council Chambers had erupted in cheers when commissioners finalized the ordinance proposal on Tuesday, June 25, ending an initial year-long drafting process that dominated discussion at seven planning commission meetings.

The ordinance would implement regulation by requiring conditional use permits to participate in the short-term rental market created by online companies like Airbnb, which allow property owners to use residential properties to host guests, who stay as they would in hotels.

The ordinance differentiates between hosted and non-hosted rentals, with reduced fees and lighter regulations proposed for Winters residents offering a portion of their residence for rental (hosted) compared to higher fees and more stringent regulations for operators who rent out entire properties (non-hosted). Both would have to obtain business licenses, pass inspections, and pay certain fees to obtain permits, which could be revoked if hosts fail to abide by specifications such as the number of occupants, provision of off-street parking and adherence to city noise ordinances.

Commissioners left it up to the city council to decide on a fee schedule for hosted rentals, with staff recommending a fee between $300 to $400, but hosted rentals would have to pay over $1,800 to apply for the conditional use permit the ordinance requires. In addition to the permit fee, hosts would have to reimburse the city for three inspections and an annual business license.

Council members directed staff to reduce the required fees and specify that inspections were required only to insure adherence to code needed for safe operation, such as requiring functional smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

The other main point of contention was the ordinance’s prohibition of use of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as short-term rentals. California law reduces impact fees and other regulations on what were formerly known as “granny flats” in a bid to increase housing stock, however, ADUs are not intended for use by transient occupants—those like Airbnb guests who stay less than 30 days.

ADUs are also counted towards state requirements for affordable housing, and potential future state legislation could ban their use as Airbnbs regardless of the city’s ordinance.

Mayor Pro-Tem Wade Cowan was adamant that in the absence of legislation, hosting Airbnbs was a fair use of Winters ADUs.

“I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to be used as Airbnb until the state legislation,” Cowan said.

Cowan and other council members were swayed by the testimony of Winters’ sole Airbnb host who operates out of an ADU, Abigail Vargas. Vargas, who has been active in the public hearing process for the ordinance since last spring, told council members she had purchased her Winters home in part due to its ADU. Vargas will eventually use the ADU to house older family members, but, until that time, she had intended to use it as a vacation rental for supplemental income.

Cowan was also specific in the need for language on required inspections, limiting the ordinance’s requirements to fire and life safety, so that Airbnb hosts would not have to make large investments to bring properties up to all city code.

“We need to be really specific about code,” Cowan said. “As long as it meets those basic standards, that’s what we should be looking for.”

Airbnb hosts Sandra Vickrey and Benny Dippel have also been instrumental in the development of the ordinance, arguing against the first iteration and fighting aspects of the proposal.

Dippel in particular has argued against claims by the city that Airbnb guests are noisy and disruptive. Planning commissioners cited a property he operates as a non-hosted rental as a source of numerous noise complaints, though city staff have been unable to verify these claims.

Dippel’s neighbor Jim Crabtree offered a public comment in support of Dippel’s operations, which are the subject of a petition started by another neighbor unhappy with his use of the property as an Airbnb. Crabtree said that although there were initially some problems with noise when Dippel first started renting out the property in 2017, Dippel had addressed the concerns and there had been no problems since.

Donlevy has argued that regardless of any current operations, regulation is necessary so that commercial uses in residential zones can be controlled.

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