Short-term rentals don’t belong in residential zones, San Diego City Attorney opines

City Council land-use committee to hold discussion March 24

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a memo March 15 stating the Municipal Code doesn’t allow short-term vacation rentals in single-family residential zones. “The City has a ‘permissive zoning ordinance,’ ” the memo reads, “This means that any use that is not listed in the City’s zoning ordinance is prohibited. Short-term rentals are not specifically defined, expressly permitted, or listed in any of the zone use categories, including residential or commercial.”

The City has been dealing with the short-term vacation rental issue for years, since the explosion of web portals such as AirBNB or VRBO made it easy for owners to rent out their properties for short periods of time. On the two sides of the issue, neighbors demand peace and tranquility in their residential zones and owners claim their right to make ends meet by renting parts (or the whole) of their homes.

Shortly after Elliott’s memo was issued, District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry circulated a statement saying she was “pleased” to confirm the short-term rentals “do not fall under any permissible use in the Municipal Code and are therefore prohibited in the City of San Diego.” Both Elliott and Bry were endorsed by Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a local group seeking to tighten the restrictions on vacation rentals.

However, the memo admits that the Municipal Code alone doesn’t offer enough grounds to tilt the balance in one way or another. “This office appreciates that the Municipal Code, as currently written, does not allow the reasonable compromise our communities seek; a compromise respectful of those who wish to enjoy the quiet enjoyment of their homes and those who wish to take advantage of the innovation economy,” it reads.

The attempt to stop the expansion of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods by former City Council president Sherri Lightner in October 2016 failed when the City Council voted down her proposal to enforce the Municipal Code as Elliott understands it.

The City Council Smart Growth & Land Use Committee will hold a discussion on short-term rentals during their on Friday, March 24 meeting. “We understand that the Planning Department will present options that provide a regulatory framework for short-term vacation rentals” during that meeting, the memo states.

“The memo is a game-changer in a struggle begun by citizens in 2007 to regulate short-term vacation rentals,” reads the Save San Diego Neighborhoods website. “Armed with this memo, as well as dozens of supporting legal opinions, Save San Diego Neighborhoods will be working to protect San Diego neighborhoods by stopping the sale of homes that may be converted to (short-term vacation) hotels.”

However, not all the players have the same view. La Jolla Light reached out to La Jolla Vacation Rentals owner Michelle Aarons, whose company shows short of 20 single-family residences available for short-term rental within La Jolla. “We still have a majority of the votes in City Council, so that’s a good thing,” she said. “They’re going to explore a little further, but I don’t think the City Attorney can change regulations like that, I think it would come down to a vote.”

Aarons added that, would the City Council vote to regulate the short-term vacation rentals, lawsuit actions would be forthcoming. “We will play by ear and hope this doesn’t amount to anything like that,” she said.

Bry’s rhetoric on short-term rentals has been consistent since the start of the District 1 campaign in differencing owners who rent rooms in their own homes, which she is fine with, from entire homes rented out in residential neighborhoods, which she opposes.

Elliott’s memo hints at a three-way solution coming from City planning staff. “It is our understanding that there are three options that would regulate short-term vacation rentals of whole homes and three options that would regulate short-term vacation rentals through home-sharing,” it reads.

Bry, who is not a member of the Smart Growth & Land Use committee, said at a previous public meeting that her hope was the issue would come out of the committee without recommendation for full discussion in front of City Council. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Council to determine the best way to allow property owners to participate in home sharing, while also enforcing existing City Code to protect residential communities from the proliferation of mini-hotels,” her statement reads.