Officials ready ordinance on Airbnb businesses ahead of summer tourism season

Officials are readying an ordinance that would regulate Airbnbs in Winters in an effort to cut down on nuisance issues.
Graphic: Winters Express
Graphic: Winters Express

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Airbnb operators and other short-term vacation rental home businesses to obtain both a license and conditional use permit in order to operate in Winters. Plans to regulate the dozen or so short-term vacation rental businesses operating have been in the works for nearly a year now after a city intern and other officials were tasked with finding a solution to what some call noise problems and other general nuisances from guests staying at Airbnbs and other homes in the city. Several strategy session meetings have been held on the subject, including one last week during the regularly-scheduled planning commission meeting in which a close-to-finalized draft of the proposed ordinance was reviewed and discussed. The proposal would categorize short-term vacation rentals into two groups: Hosted accommodations — homes where the property owner lives and sleeps when guests are staying — and non-hosted accommodations where the property owner is largely absent. Both would be subject to a home inspection to ensure the business operates within safety regulations and other codes and both would be required to pay transient occupancy tax, or TOT, once city officials give a potential short-term vacation rental the green light. But before approval is given, potential short-term rental operators would have to go through a permitting process — and that’s where things start to change: A business looking to operate a hosted accommodation could get instant approval from the city planner, while those looking to operate a non-hosted business would be required to get approval from the city’s planning commission. That extra step for prospective non-hosted business owners could mean spending hundreds of dollars more — more than $1,800, according to one city official — in order to secure a business license and conditional use permit to operate because the cost of seeking approval from the planning commission would be passed on to the applicant. City officials justified the extra step by saying non-hosted short-term rental units currently operating in the city have drawn complaints from other residents and even some planning commission members themselves over noise, parking and other nuisances associated with non-residential guests. “Two of us have experienced the impact of no regulation on [short term rental homes],” Planning Commission Chairman Paul Myer said at a study session in January. When asked by another member if the city had any data to support claims of a significant problem with certain problematic short-term vacation units operating in Winters, City Manager John Donlevy said analysis on the dozen or so short-term rental businesses in Winters had not been done, but that he would find out from the police department how many calls have come in regarding noise and other problems. “I’ll see how many calls we have on the two locations because I know it’s a number,” Donlevy said at the meeting. That number turned out to be four, according to data obtained by the Express from the Winters Police Department. Two police calls related to party disturbances while one dealt with an unspecified animal control issue involving noise, the data showed. Officials acknowledged at last Tuesday’s meeting the number of phone calls for police assistance was relatively low, but said it may be indicative of the neighborly atmosphere that lends itself to Winters where residents try to work out issues in a constructive manner without getting the police involved. In other instances, officials said, residents may simply feel that the police aren’t capable of dealing with the problem. “I think some people, a lot of people, just put up with stuff,” Commission Member Patrick Riley said. “I don’t like putting up with stuff.” One way to not have to put up with that stuff anymore is to pass an ordinance: If short-term rental owners don’t follow noise and safety ordinances among other local laws, officials can effectively shut down the operation by pulling their use permit, business license or both. Those who continue to operate without a license or permit could be hit with a $500 fine that increases to a $1,000-a-day penalty, the draft ordinance said. But the ordinance still has some issues to work out, including concerns over specific safety initiatives and parking regulations that came up at the study session. Those issues are going to have to be worked through quickly because some planning commission members and other city officials want to see an ordinance passed by both the planning commission and the city council before summer hits. “A concern would be that the summer is prime-time for these short-term rentals, and for the parties and the issues,” Myer said. To delay the issue would mean the city council would not vote to approve the ordinance until after the Independence Day holiday, assuming they had no questions or issues of their own. That deadline appears largely based on the commission’s own anecdotal evidence regarding how problematic just two of the dozen short-term rental businesses have been over the last year: The data obtained by the police department showed three of the four calls for law enforcement assistance were placed in non-summer months. Still, officials are forging ahead with what they believe will be a solution to their problem: A finalized version of the ordinance is expected to be reviewed at the planning commission’s next meeting scheduled for April 24.]]>

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