A City, If You Can Keep It: A Cause without Effect

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

I have concerns with how the Winters Short Term Rental Ordinance (a.k.a. Airbnb Ordinance) is being implemented by Planning Commission.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, in 2019 the Winters City Council enacted an ordinance requiring City approval through a permit process for residents to advertise their property, a bedroom within, or an Accessory Dwelling Unit on Airbnb or other short-term rental platforms.

Starting in 2018, this ordinance was pushed in large part by two Planning Commissioners predicated on their own complaints about their neighbors. They referenced additional unnamed neighbors with complaints about the same properties. After a review of the record associated with this ordinance, there doesn’t seem to have been more than two properties of concern back then. Neither property is currently an Airbnb.

To me, these individuals used their position on the Planning Commission to solve issues they had with their neighbors. In an email on Jan. 10, 2019, one commissioner wrote, “We need to create a situation where the City has leverage over the property owner to control his guest’s behavior.” “Leverage” and “Control” are two things voters should have over the government, not the other way around. Government exists to manage public goods and protect individual liberty not control citizens.

I raised my concerns of a conflict of interest with City Manager Donlevy in January 2019 and was told they would be passed on to the Planning Commission. At the very least these commissioners should have recused themselves from the process entirely. The only result was the emails in question were removed from future packets effectively eliminating anyone else from noticing going forward. That has continued to sit very uncomfortably with me, even now.

Prior to enactment, only one location at issue was specifically identifiable in the packets. The property is a double lot and was used as a wedding events venue. Any issues with that property could have been solved by enforcing the existing City Code. The property was being used as a business beyond the scope of Airbnb, and as such, requiring a conditional use permit and business license would have achieved the desired outcome.

Parking and noise were two issues raised by the public during deliberations. Both are issues that are just realities of living with neighbors. People park on the street where you’d prefer they didn’t, as we see throughout town. Multiple nights a week in the summer, I can hear parties and music late at night and into the morning even though there are no Airbnbs near me. To me, both issues are a case of misplaced blame as far as Airbnbs go.

Until recently, we didn’t see how this ordinance manifested in real life.

Two of two permits have had comments by Planning Commission members that make me extremely uncomfortable with where this is going. The level of micromanagement over trivial aspects of each property with little to no impact (and no basis for such authority in the text of the ordinance, as the city planner rightly pointed out) is not how I want the Planning Commission to run.

The commissioners’ concerns driving these comments are twofold: parking and available housing stock.

With a few exceptions, nearly every residential property in town has space for two cars either in a garage or on a driveway. Yet people often choose to park on the street, preferring to park in front of their home as is their right. Garages get used as storage or entertainment spaces.

Comments in the first Airbnb permit hearing had commissioners wanting to restrict street parking for Airbnb visitors. How they expect to prevent people from parking on a public street is beyond me. There is no appreciable difference between Airbnb visitors parking on the street and a permanent resident having guests over for the weekend. I suspect it is also illegal to discriminate who can use permitless public infrastructure. A citywide residential parking permit program, similar to Davis is really the only way to enact this kind of restriction.

Short-term rentals are not driving housing shortages nor affordability issues. Eliminating them will not have any impact on either. These are statewide problems driven by policies from Sacramento.

Over a two-week period, I was able to find nine Airbnb units in Winters proper. Two are single rooms in the same home, five are rooms in Hotel Winters, one is the Abbey House Inn, and the last one is local realtor Sandy Vickrey’s house downtown that she often uses herself. I once asked Mrs. Vickrey if she would sell the home and got a categorical “No.” For this column, I asked if the home would be a long-term rental if she could not list it on Airbnb, also “No.”

None of these listings would be long-term rentals if they were not on Airbnb and the two recently permitted Airbnbs are not yet listed. If additional short-term rentals exist in town, the fact that they are not always advertised leads me to believe they are occasional use only and are not adding to nor taking away from otherwise available housing units.

The problem of Airbnbs in Winters affecting housing or parking seems to exist only in the minds of a few planning commissioners.

Neither parking nor available housing are issues that have been created by short-term rentals in town, nor will they be solved by heavy-handed micromanagement of the two to four properties used as such. But we cannot be surprised that after turning Winters into a tourist-driven town, the residents then want to use their private properties to enter the associated Winters tourism economy. This phenomenon is merely a result of the way we have chosen to grow our town.

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