MORONGO BASIN — Not permitted but not quite forbidden, the tents, trailers, yurts and storage containers rented out as vacation homes in much of the Morongo Basin exist in limbo.
With carefully decorated tents as well as a bathroom and a kitchen with working plumbing, Annie and Tony DeMille have been renting to people from all over the world since spring 2016. They’ve also been in frequent contact with the county code enforcement office, advocating for rules that will allow non-traditional places like theirs to stay open.
“We can be the forerunners, because there are glamping retreats everywhere,” Annie DeMille said.
She believes if the county allows places like hers, it can gain plenty of revenue from transient occupancy taxes — the bed taxes hotels pay.
“You can set it up, make it legal and you’ll get a ton of money from TOTs,” she said.
Her husband recently told the county board of supervisors that since opening, their Lazy Sky Boutique Retreat has hosted more than 2,800 guests and paid $22,000 in bed taxes.
But after a few years where the code enforcement office allowed the rentals, although they were technically against code, the DeMilles and several other rental owners got word in fall that the county planned to ban all of their businesses, possibly by the start of the new year.
It was a surprise to many of the owners, who said they had been working with code enforcement officers and planners and gotten the impression that the new code being written would allow alternative rentals.
Katherine Lussier told the board of supervisors that she and her husband’s retirement plans depend on renting out the two trailers on their property.
“As we were told that you guys were going to work with us, we decided to put our money into making sure the septic system was appropriate and the electrical was appropriate,” Lussier said.
“To now have the carpet ripped from underneath us in unfair.”
No short-term vacation rentals are allowed anywhere in county jurisdiction except for in mountain communities such as Big Bear. But county code enforcement had held off on shutting down desert rentals unless there were health and safety problems, DeMille said.
Then rental owners started getting cease-and-desist orders from the county again.
At a September Municipal Advisory Council meeting, she said, Salazar told Tony DeMille that alternative rentals wouldn’t be included in the new ordinance.
The announcement put owners in a quandary. Was it worth investing in a business that could be shut down in January?
They took their complaints to the board of supervisors meeting on Oct. 16, where several Morongo Basin rental owners spoke.
Jordan Sample, a partner in an Airbnb site in Morongo Valley, said before her friend offered her that opportunity, she lived on less than $500 a month.
“Most importantly for me is knowing each booking puts food on the table for my child, pays tuition for his education, puts gas in the car so we can get around, and pays for activities and sports that we would have to forgo without this honest work,” Sample said.
The county seems to have heard their pleas.
In November, Wingert and Land Use Services Director Terri Rahhal told the Hi-Desert Star the coming ordinance will allow alternative rentals.
“There is no intention to disallow any short-term vacation rentals that make use of tents, trailers or other alternative structures,” county spokesman David Wert said via email after talking to Wingert and Rahhal. “The county clearly understands the importance the of alternative structures to the Morongo Basin.”
The ordinance under effect now, applying only to mountain communities, doesn’t allow any rentals besides single-family homes.
Wert said the planners know the desert is different.
“The county has no intention of excluding the Morongo Basin from the vacation rental economy. However, we have discovered many unique conditions that require a set of regulations different from those that apply in the mountains,” he said via email.
“Our Land Use Services staff is working with property owners in the Morongo Basin to draft these regulations in a new STVR (short-term vacation rental) ordinance,” Wert said.
“In the meantime, we are not shutting down any STVR for lack of a permit that isn’t available.”