Santa Cruz County vacation rental law creeps toward passage
Posted: 02/24/2011 01:30:21 AM PST

SANTA CRUZ — The county Planning Commission on Wednesday recommended approving an ordinance that would, for the first time, bring vacation rental homes under the scrutiny of county regulators.

After months of revisions and a three-hour debate about the fairness of the new rules, the commission voted to send the Board of Supervisors a set of rules that sets up a licensing system focused on the Live Oak area that limits both the number of rentals and how many people can be in the home.

Neighbors have clamored for the law for a decade, arguing that vacation rentals bring with them problems befitting an episode of the MTV hit show “Jersey Shore.” Some report six or more seasonal rentals on their blocks, and said they would rather have long-term residents living there.

“For every vacation rental in our community, a potential family is lost,” said Steven Weiss of the Live Oak Family Resource Center.

A majority of the dozens of people who showed up Wednesday morning were rental owners opposed to the law. They seized on the low number of police complaints about the properties — 28 in two years — accusing the county of overkill.

“We’re using a machete when we need a fly swatter,” said Monica Bowman, a vacation rental owner who lives in the area.

The county first started drawing up an ordinance last year, but the commission tweaked it several times before Wednesday’s vote. Many owners say they are locals trying to make ends meet by renting their homes, and are being punished for the actions of a few scofflaws. Many Live Oak residents argued that they were fed up with parties and late-night noise, as well as fighting the multimillion-dollar vacation rental industry.

Under the new rules, rental licenses in Live Oak would have to be renewed every five years. The number of rentals would be capped at 15 percent for the neighborhood, and 20 percent per block. Owners also would be required to provide a local contact to neighbors.

Occupancy would be limited to two per bedroom, plus two additional people. Children under 12 wouldn’t count toward the limits, and parties and celebrations would be limited to twice the number of occupants, and be held only during daylight hours.

The rules could go next month to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to pass them.

Vacation rentals in unincorporated parts of the county but outside Live Oak would still need licenses, but they would not need to be renewed. If a property changes ownership, the license would transfer as well.

Not all opponents of the law live in Live Oak. Tamara O’Kelly operates a bed and breakfast in Boulder Creek, and questioned the need for the law given the low number of complaints.

“I just don’t see where the big problem is,” O’Kelly said.

While the license fee is estimated to cost around $250, the owners could be on the hook for 10 times that amount if the county decides to hold a public hearing on a license renewal. Operators said they feared local residents would register frivolous complaints to get the county to yank licenses.

“There’s a lot of bunk that’s just floating around,” fumed Shyamal Chaudhury, who runs a rental near Twin Lakes State Beach. Chaudhury said he is a responsible owner who posts rules about noise and asks tenants for a deposit to make sure they don’t cause trouble.

But for many residents, the vote, which came 10 years after a rental law was first floated, came as a relief. Those included Russell Rolfe, who has lived in Live Oak for 30 years.

“The first 25 years were wonderful,” Rolfe said. “The last five years have been a nightmare.”