Fort Bragg City Council Rejects Proposal to Expand Short-Term Vacation Rentals Amidst Concerns Over Housing Crisis – MendoFever

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Downtown Fort Bragg [Photo from the City of Fort Bragg]

The Fort Bragg City Council declined a proposal to expand the zones for allowable short-term vacation rentals at its Monday night meeting, and directed staff to clarify some definitions. 

In 2017, the council adopted regulations for short-term vacation rentals, which only allows them in the central business district, on the second or third floor above commercial uses. But the definition of short-term rentals is vague. It doesn’t specify the number of days, and the difference between a short-term rental and a bed and breakfast is not clear.

Seven known unpermitted short-term vacation rentals are currently operating in different areas of the city. The only two permitted short-term vacation rentals generated over $25k in transient occupancy tax for the city last year.

But the majority of comments from the public and the council showed a deep concern over the lack of long-term residential rentals, and alarm that increasing the number of short-term rentals would further deplete workforce housing stock.

Valerie Stump, a code enforcement officer with the Fort Bragg police department, told the council that expanding the allowable zones would call for an amendment to the city’s general plan. And she shared the genesis of the proposal to expand the zones, saying, “Members of the public that we were code enforcing on came forward and requested a consideration of  expanding this use to other commercial zones…They specifically said, please allow us to continue our business, hoping that there would be a chance that we would consider expanding to this commercial area where they are, so they could continue operating…They’re technically not operating legally right now.” The recommended changes would expand short-term rentals only into other commercial zones, not residential areas. Operators would still need to get a business license and a minor use permit.

One commenter objected to what he characterized as “a landlord trying to change the laws to benefit themselves.” Frequent City Council commenter Jacob Patterson suggested in a letter that property owners could request rezoning at their own expense. During public comment, Jade Tippett said he “strongly opposed” any expansion. “We have a workforce housing crisis on the Mendocino Coast,” he said, adding that a 2020 survey by the Mendocino Coast Housing Action Team asked 72 local employers if they had lost workers between 2018-2021 due to lack of housing. “Sixty-seven percent said yes,” he reported. “We have a housing crisis, and yet we’re thinking about taking more housing from the workforce…The impacts aren’t analyzed, either.”

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Tatiana Peavey thinks the current system denies many people a business opportunity, calling the regulations “elitist, since only a select few people based on an arbitrary geographical boundary are even allowed to apply for a permit….Half of them aren’t even being used at the moment. It’s classic dog in the manger behavior. Opening the geographical restriction allows people who aren’t in the fancy central business owners’ club an opportunity to create better alternatives to the big corporate low-budget hotels that are available.”

There is no formal resolution regarding the number of short term rentals that will be allowed, but the informally recognized cap is ten. The highest number of permits has been four. Council member Lindy Peters objected to the characterization of zones as arbitrary.

“These are zones,” he said. “And unfortunately, this particular business is not in the proper zone. And to me, one of our policies is, yeah, to be business friendly, and to try to create a good business atmosphere for our economy. But also, if you take a look at our goals and policies as a council, housing is right up there. And in my opinion, this is a step in the wrong direction. Taking housing stock away, even if it’s one or two houses, is the camel’s nose in the tent.” (A proverb cited earlier in the meeting states that if you let a camel’s nose into the tent, the rest of the animal will follow, with presumably undesirable results.)

Mayor Bernie Norvell, whose family rents properties to long-term residents, was the lone voice on the council expressing support for expanding short-term rental opportunities. “Short-term rentals don’t always just take away from long-term,” he opined. “I can honestly say that being in the rental business with the restrictions that the State of California has put in place to protect tenants is a hindrance to landlords. And it makes investing in housing for rentals extremely unattractive…If I had to start over today and try to get into the rental business, I absolutely would not.” 

The council did not vote, but did provide direction to staff to clarify the definitions of bed and breakfasts and short-term rentals. Stump also asked that the number of permits as well as the number of units allowed on a single property be formalized. Because these will be amendments to the zoning code, the matter will go before the Planning Commission before returning to the City Council.

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