Thursday, November 17, 2011

Napa Vacation Rental Action Urged

Jesse Duarte | Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 
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The question of whether to legalize vacation rentals is now in the hands of the St. Helena City Council.
Following three public hearings, the St. Helena Planning Commission on Tuesday recommended that the council crack down on illegal operations and craft a new ordinance allowing people to rent out their homes for less than 30 days, albeit with strict regulations and oversight.
A majority of the commission agreed that the council should use the city of Napa’s ordinance, adopted in 2009, as a model.
Napa’s vacation rental permits are issued by staff and appealable to the Planning Commission and City Council. Unlike use permits, they don’t run with the land and so they don’t transfer to the new owner when a property is sold.
Napa approved 45 vacation rental permits, with an annual fee of $1,075 per permit. The permits require operators to acquire business licenses, pay transient occupancy taxes, undergo annual fire inspections and provide neighbors with the operator’s contact information, but allow no more than two overnight occupants per room, with a maximum of 10 per house.
Anticipating a large number of neighbor complaints, the city of Napa hired a code enforcer to police vacation rentals and created an after-hours phone line so neighbors could report problems.
Due to a lack of complaints after the first year of operations, the city eliminated the code enforcer and the phone line, and reduced the annual fee to $197, according to a memo from Napa Assistant Planner Karlo Felix.
Chuck Meibeyer of St. Helena told the commission he owns two legal vacation rentals in Napa, and called Napa’s ordinance a “model program.”
With strict rules in place to keep vacation rentals under control, the added tax revenue “will add to the community without harming the fabric of what St. Helena offers,” Meibeyer said.
The commission unanimously agreed that the city should step up enforcement and force illegal operators to cease and desist until new regulations are in place.
“We need a full stop while we boot the new system,” said Commissioner Matthew Heil.
Commissioner Sarah Parker added that since vacation rentals are probably going to be busy over the holidays, maybe the city should allow them to operate through the end of December.
Commissioners also unanimously recommended that the council stiffen penalties for violators.
The vote recommending regulation was 3-1, with Commission Chair Alan Galbraith dissenting and Commissioner Grace Kistner absent.
Galbraith maintained that vacation rentals aren’t appropriate for residential neighborhoods, and favored stiff penalties for violators.
Other commissioners said legalization could work if regulations are tight enough.
Commissioner Greg Pitts suggested capping the number of vacation rentals, making permits non-transferable when a home is sold, setting an annual fee, limiting the number of overnight occupants to fewer than 10, setting up a system to follow up on neighbor complaints and soliciting neighbors’ input during the permit approval process.
“If it leads to no (permits) being approved because every neighbor in the community opposes every single home, then we’ll come to a conclusion that it’s not going to work in St. Helena,” Pitts said.
The new permitting system shouldn’t give current illegal operators an advantage over law-abiding homeowners who want to start a vacation rental, Pitts said.
He calculated that 20 vacation rentals could bring in roughly $100,000 to $150,000 in hotel tax revenue for the city, depending on occupancy.

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