Immediate past City Attorney Jan Goldsmith had maintained rules and regulations governing short-term vacation rentals were vague and needed clarification.
New City Attorney Mara Elliott has taken a completely different tack with her March 15 issuance of a memorandum of law advising the City Council on the housing issue.
"The city has a ‘permissive zoning ordinance,’” said Elliott's memorandum. “This means that any use that is not listed in the city's zoning ordinance is prohibited.”
Elliott's memo subsequently pointed out, “Short-term vacation rentals are not specifically defined, expressly permitted, or listed in any of the zone use categories, including residential or commercial."
The city attorney's memo came at a key time, just before the city's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee is scheduled to take up the vacation rental issue again March 24.
Last November, following five hours of public testimony, a motion by then-City Council President Sherri Lightner, which some feel would have largely banned short-term vacation rentals in single-family neighborhoods, was defeated by a 7-2 vote.
Lightner’s proposal would have restricted a homeowner's ability to rent to transients for less than 30 days in most single-family zones, with renters or owners of single-family homes also not able to rent out a room or space for less than seven days without proper permitting.
An alternative motion brought by then-Councilmember, now-Assemblyman Todd Gloria was subsequently passed in November by the same 7-2 margin. His counter motion requested city staff do a fiscal analysis to determine the cost of greater STVR enforcement citywide, asked staff to draft and return with a comprehensive ordinance better defining and regulating short-term vacation rentals, as well as remanding the matter back to the City Council's Smart Growth and Land Use Committee for further consideration.
Reacting to Elliott's pronouncement, 1st District Councilmember Barbary Bry said: "I was pleased to read the memo issued by City Attorney Mara Elliott confirming that short-term vacation rentals do not fall under any permissible use in the municipal code and are therefore prohibited in the city of San Diego. 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.”
Pacific Beach resident Ronan Gray, a spokesperson for Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a grassroots group opposed to short-term vacation rentals in single-family neighborhoods, called Elliott's comment a “game changer” in beginning to address noise, trash and other recurrent problems with short-term rentals.
“Suddenly, these mini-hotels that have been popping up are now illegal,” Gray said. “We bought our homes expecting to be living in residential, not commercial areas. This type of use is clearly commercial.”
Gray added: “When you turn a home into a hotel – nobody wants to live there, it's just a constant stream of strangers and tourists. That's not what our neighborhoods are for.”
Gary Wonacott, president of Mission Beach Town Council, located in an area where large numbers of short-term vacation rentals are present, said the beach community has taken a centrist approach to dealing with the issue.
“While the MBTC membership has, on multiple occasions, expressed concern for the increase in the number of short-term rentals in Mission Beach in the past decade, and has voted for a minimum number of days allowed for a short-term rental, the Mission Beach community has historically embraced vacation rentals,” Wonacott said.
“It is now a matter of working with the city to ensure that the final ordinance implemented by the city incorporates the features in the Mission Beach plan that tailor the requirements to the culture of this unique and special community in San Diego,” Wonacott said.