Opinion: Short-term rentals and growth

“If you want proof that Winters is growing, look no further than the actions of the city’s government.”
Graphic: Winters Express
Graphic: Winters Express

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If you want proof that Winters is growing, look no further than the actions of the city’s government.

Last month, the city’s planning commission formally gave their nod of approval to an ordinance that would regulate short-term vacation rentals like Airbnbs and other businesses operating within the city’s limits. The ordinance, which the commission was ironing out for more than a year, now heads to the city council for a vote.

The ordinance requires homeowners who effectively sublease all or parts of their property on a short-term basis to pay certain fees and navigate a combination of existing and new bureaucratic processes in order to legally operate within the city. The measure was spearheaded by a city intern last year and fine-tuned over the last few months by members of the planning commission working with city staff.

During that year-long process, the proposal has been brought before the planning commission a number of times. Each time, commissioners raised new concerns about the measure. Holes were poked, hypothetical situations debated, language was added and removed.

Earlier this year, the two key backers of the measure — Commission Chair Paul Myer and Commissioner Patrick Riley — urged city staff and the commission to ready a vote ahead of the summer tourism season when they say short-term rentals were at their rowdiest and worst.

They complained about everything from noise to foot traffic, garbage to parking. More than once, commissioners asserted the police had been called numerous times to bring peace and order to a neighborhood.

Their efforts to rush a vote were thwarted at least twice while I was covering the issue for the Express: Once because there weren’t enough commissioners in attendance to form a quorum — the necessary number of people in the room to bring a measure to a vote — and again in the spring when a timely public notice was not published in the Express (people at the newspaper said the notice was not received, though city officials insist it was sent). The lack of a public notice meant the commission’s key vote was delayed in a way that the ordinance would not be approved by the council until after the key summer tourism season, something Myer said was “unfortunate.” He used that word several times.

Perhaps equally unfortunate is that so many of the points the commissioners used in backing the need for a timely vote have been de-bunked as the process played out.

In April, at the top of their meeting, commissioners complained that the lack of public notice — for which the newspaper was ultimately blamed by city officials — would “unfortunately” delay the council’s vote until after the key summer tourism season. But commissioners ultimately conceded at that meeting that there was still more work to do on the ordinance — meaning it likely would have been delayed anyway. In fact, they delayed their own vote in May — even though a public notice appeared in the newspaper — after acknowledging the need for more community input on key portions of the measure.

Throughout the whole process, commissioners acted as if the measure would sail through the city council in time for a summer activation, presuming city council members and the mayor would approve the measure without any scrutiny.

And council members absolutely should scrutinize the measure as well as the motives behind the commission.

Earlier this year, when Myer and Riley repeatedly complained that police officers had to be dispatched to reports of noise complaints and other issues associated with short-term rental homes, Commissioner Dave Adams asked City Manager John Donlevy if there was any data that supported those claims. Donlevy said he would reach out to the police department for the data. I asked Donlevy for that same data, and he assured me that when it was given to him, he would pass it along. Several weeks went by, and despite numerous follow-up requests, Donlevy never gave me or anyone else at the Express the data we asked for and were promised.

The data eventually did come to light after I asked Chief John Miller for the data. The data revealed a stark contrast to the anecdotes of the commissioners: Police had been dispatched just four times to addresses known to operate as short-term vacation rentals. The Express published a story about the data in April.

The city has never formally released, except as part of the planning commission’s packet. Even then, a city official simply printed out and published the email sent between the chief of police and me. Had it not been for that email, it’s unlikely the city would have ever offered that data on its own, much less in a public setting like the planning commission meeting.

After the April article, Myer and Riley changed their tune, saying it was unlikely people in Winters wanted to call the police on their neighbors. That’s just not the kind of town Winters is, they said. But there was still one home close to Myer that was causing significant issues. After the data was released, a city official encouraged a neighbor close to that home to make public comments in which he defended the commissioner’s accounts of noise and nuisance.

But the series of articles published in the Express also encouraged the owner of the so-called problematic home to come forward. Benjamin Dippel said he was almost certain commissioners were complaining about his residence, and he told a different story — one where he works with neighbors to ensure peace and order in the neighborhood. Have people complained to him? Sure, Dippel said, but far less than commissioners would lead the public to believe.

Dippel has been present at every planning commission meeting since then, challenging the complainants to prove their angst with data and urging commissioners who were on the fence to reject the proposed ordinance until then. He was not the only one to speak against it: At that meeting and others, numerous Airbnb operators came forward to offer their own testimony about the wonderful guests they’d encountered, the abundance of civility and lack of complaints while they had been in business. At least one person said the exorbitant and confusing fees the proposal required to legally operate within Winters could force them to stop running on Airbnb; they questioned whether city officials were pushing for an ordinance because they were interested in generating revenue.

Good question.

After his first commission meeting, Dippel attended a city council meeting to restate his opposition during public comment. Before that meeting was gaveled in, he and Donlevy spoke about an invitation the city extended to Dippel to meet with local staff on the ordinance. Dippel complained that city officials never fulfilled their invitation to meet with him as promised. Donlevy responded by reminding Dippel that the city requires short-term vacation rental operators to pay a kind of tax, known as transient occupancy tax or TOT, and that the city hadn’t been prioritizing the collection of that tax for a while.

The city is now prioritizing that collection. On June 21, Donlevy wrote that the discussion over the proposed ordinance “has certainly made us aware of some folks and we will be in contact” about delinquent taxes.

The city acknowledges collecting TOT from short-term vacation rental businesses does not come without challenges. For one, not everyone uses Airbnb, and Donlevy acknowledged at several meetings that the city does not have the staff to patrol every platform where a short-term rental might be offered. In at least one instance, city officials said a homeowner de-listed their property from Airbnb and posted it on a competing website after someone from the city made contact with them.

That also makes it difficult for city officials to impose requirements outlined in the ordinance that short-term rental operators obtain certain business licenses. Commissioners said their solution to that issue was to enforce the license provision on Airbnbs and other short-term rentals on a case-by-case basis — specifically, when a business operating in town became a problem.

Enforcement of the permit requirement appeared to be largely a scare tactic: One meant to dissuade new Airbnb businesses from popping up in a town where two hotels — one luxury, one franchised — are slated to be open and fully operational very soon. The city would rather people stay at Hotel Winters or the Fairfield Inn than one of the new homes being built on what was once the outskirts of town — it’s much easier to collect tax revenue and enforce licensing requirements from hotels than Airbnbs.

Part of that may have to do with the fact that the ordinance repeatedly came before the planning commission in various unfinished states. Not once was it debated without something being added, changed or taken away. According to the latest Express article, this was still true mere minutes before commissioners voted to send the ordinance up to the council.

In the article published last week, the Express said Winters joined “a growing number of cities in a nation-wide trend ending a decade of casual and professional renters bypassing land use policy through online platforms.” It isn’t entirely clear what land use policies were being bypassed by people simply operating a rental business out of their homes, but it’s correct to say the actions of the commission mirror those in other communities across the country.

Sort of.

In recent years, Sacramento, South Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles and Napa have passed various ordinances regarding short-term rental businesses. But all of these communities have much-larger populations than Winters, see a higher amount of tourism business and have many, many more Airbnb homes operating within their jurisdiction.

Winters did not create its own ordinance. Instead, city officials did here what they’ve done when crafting similar ordinances: They looked to their neighbors. In this case, city officials franchised a similar ordinance adopted in Napa — a de facto tourism destination and one that is nearly fifteen times larger than Winters. That the ordinance had to be amended so many times spoke to how inapplicable it was to a city where most people know their neighbors and satisfy disputes without police intervention.

If the city is operating Winters as if it were comparable to Napa, that speaks volumes to the direction elected and appointed officials are taking the city. Think development. Think annexation. If not, then it would be a mistake for city council members to rubber-stamp the Airbnb ordinance as certain commissioners assume they will.

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