Is it back to the drawing board on vacation rentals?

The increasingly contentious debate over short-term vacation rentals is set to continue for some time as the San Diego Planning Commission recommended last week that a proposal to regulate such rentals, spearheaded by Councilmember Lorie Zapf, be majorly re-worked before a deciding vote is held on its fate.

Presenting the proposal before commissioners during what ended up a roughly six-hour hearing Dec. 3 in the Copper Room at the City Administration building, Zapf staff member Ryan Purdy offered a plan over which each commissioner expressed concerns. The several hours of public testimony preceding the commissioners’ recommendation that Purdy and Zapf’s office essentially re-write the proposal from scratch, illustrated a widely varied public opinion as well, including thoughts from a few prominent La Jollans.

Among the most concerning element of the proposal, from the commissioners’ perspectives, was setting a minimum of 21 days for short-term whole-house rentals, and Commissioner Anthony Wagner wanted strict mechanisms in place to ensure health and safety codes, as well as respect for neighbors.

“I believe there’s an opportunity for all players on both sides to be able to continue their existing model and not disenfranchise further the rest of the community,” Wagner said. “The interesting thing to point out for the 300 or 400 people that were here at the beginning (of the hearing) is the bad actors, the bad (landlords), they’re not here. They’re not here just like when there’s a problem, they’re not there for the problem. How do we not decimate a business, and not decimate a community?”

The commission voted unanimously to recommend Zapf’s staff further evaluate its proposal before returning for commission approval. The intent, commission chair Tim Golba said, was to have staff take into account the commission’s objection to the minimum stay requirement and its support for some mechanism to make permits for short-term vacation rentals ministerial in nature — instead of discretionary as was proposed — with the potential for triggers that could weed out “bad actors.”

A switch to discretionary permitting for individual violators of whatever rules are adopted was among the ideas with commission support.

“We don’t really feel like this is all that close,” Golba said.

A continuation date was set for Jan. 28, 2016, though the recommendation is not binding, and Zapf’s office could elect to bypass further review from the Planning Commission and go straight to requesting the proposal next be heard by the City Council instead.

Purdy said it was too early to tell which direction Zapf’s office will choose.

Although those who came forward with criticism of short-term rentals appeared to favor the longer minimum stays — such criticism was often highlighted by photographic and vocal recollections of disruptive parties at rentals near their homes — the commissioners generally agreed that a 21-day threshold would amount to a de facto ban on the rentals. Each commissioner said that was not something desired.

“We all, including myself, don’t want to be next to the house that has the rowdy parties or has parking problems,” Commissioner Susan Peerson said. “We could say that for more than just vacation rentals. To be effective, this really is a management and enforcement issue, rather than a number of days (issue).”

Waving small green flags in lieu of applause, supporters of less strict rental restrictions showed appreciation for the commissioners’ critique of the plan as a virtual “non-starter,” for a variety of reasons. Equally represented at the hearing, those desiring a more strict approach to rentals regulation pleaded their cases alongside their opposition. They, too, had opportunities to silently show appreciation for certain points raised during public testimony and the commissioners’ comment period, waving signs of their own that read, “Neighborhoods are for neighbors, not vacation rentals.”

La Jollans Barbara Bry and Joe LaCava, each vying to replace termed-out District 1 San Diego Councilmember Sherri Lightner, were among the first members of the public to speak. LaCava stressed the importance and meaning of the September vote of the San Diego Community Planners Committee, which backed the idea of home-sharing in which a property owner is present during a vacationer’s stay, but took issue with parts of Zapf’s proposal as they related to short-term rentals with no property owner present.

LaCava suggested the Planners Committee was right in rejecting Zapf’s proposal on a 24-3 vote, and correct in its recommendation that an ordinance be written recognizing short-term vacation rentals as equivalent to traditional “visitor accommodations,” which are not permitted to operate in residential zones under San Diego Municipal Code.

“The Community Planners Committee overwhelmingly supported the concept of home-sharing, but short-term rentals are prohibited in the Municipal Code,” LaCava said. “We should strictly enforce that.”

Jonah Mechanic, spokesperson for San Diego Vacation Rental Managers Alliance, said that portion of the Municipal Code is subject to interpretation, as it does not specify rules for single-family homes operating as individual rental units.

As Mechanic understands it, the code was aimed at forbidding hotels in the traditional sense from operating in residential zones. The modern idea of short-term vacation rentals does not conflict with the intended purpose of that code, he said.

Bry offered opinions on the proposal that were similar to LaCava’s, but placed hers on the backdrop of striking a balance between rental operations that help landlords earn extra income and the retention of the character and safety of neighborhoods.

“I’m in favor of home-sharing, of allowing homeowners the ability to rent out a room in their house, if they are on site and they pay the appropriate taxes,” Bry said.

“I oppose commercial whole-house rentals on a short-term basis in residential neighborhoods.” Housing in San Diego, she added, is already in short supply, further creating concern for her over the rentals.

“Turning single-family neighborhood homes into permanent vacation rentals only makes housing less affordable,” Bry said.

La Jolla Light will continue to file updates on this hot-button story.