JOSHUA TREE — About 50 Morongo Basin residents gathered in the Bob Burke Government Center to partake in a public forum Thursday morning on possible changes to short-term rental ordinances in the mountains and deserts.

The San Bernardino County Planning Commission called a second hearing to vote on proposed language that would update the county development code. The ordinance would allow short-term rentals like Airbnbs in unincorporated parts of the Morongo Basin, but would also place more conditions of their operations.

Staff member Suzanne Peterson presented the Land Use Department report, which she said was created with the input of code enforcement to expand the range of allowable short-term rentals and address concerns about issues like occupancy limits and parking standards.

The report was originally presented in August and has since been updated to address some public comments brought up in the first public forum.

The county originally proposed to require rental owners to keep records on renters and their vehicles. The ordinance also banned additional dwelling units, or ADUs, like casitas and RVs from being used as short-term rentals.

“People had comments on ADUs, advertising, pet restrictions, record keeping, density limitations and more,” Petterson said. “We also heard a lot of people say that the desert is different than the mountains.”

After the August hearing, the ordinance was updated to allow for electronic record-keeping to take place on a host website, like Updates also allowed accessory units to be used as short-term rentals if the owner or manager occupies the property’s main house.

While these changes addressed some of the concerns brought up in the last meeting, the public still had several issues with the ordinance.

One group of speakers voiced that they still believed there is no place for short-term rentals in the desert. Another group voiced that the restrictions were too harsh. They said short-term rentals were vital for the desert economy and the restrictions would make it so that the only people who could earn money from short-term rentals were large-scale developers.

Jane Jarlsberg, of Yucca Valley, was concerned that the influx of short-term rentals would worsen the housing crisis, lowering the number of affordable long-term rentals in the Basin.

“My concern for many years has been affordable-housing long-term rentals,” she said. “I think these regulations need to include something to limit the conversion of former long-term rentals to short-term rentals.”

Several people from Morongo Valley echoed her sentiment and added that, in their community, short-term rentals bring in people who do not know how to live in the desert. They said these visitors often don’t know how to drive on dirt roads and can damage private roads that locals have lived on for years.

David Irwin with Terra Projects in Joshua Tree said he also believed that short-term renters can be harmful to the local ecology. He hoped in the future there could be a way to tax the rentals so the community can put that money back into fixing their roads and parks.

“When renters do come here for the short-term rentals, they don’t have the same love for the community that we do,” he said.

Clint Stoker, a planning commissioner with Yucca Valley, thought some of the current language did not address specific desert issues because the ordinance was not taken from the desert region.

“I think campfires are something that need to be addressed and have been a problem in the past,” he said.

The ordinance allows campfires in short-term rentals in the desert but bars them in the mountain regions.

Mirian Seger, from Joshua Tree, agreed with him that the language could be more specific to the desert, noting that the ordinance includes information on snow plowing.

After hearing from the people, the planning commission voted to send the ordinance to the board of supervisors.

“I would remind everybody that you have another chance to talk about all of these issues when it goes to the board of supervisors,” Chairman John Weldy said.

The board of supervisors will hold its next meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The meeting will be available for viewing at the Bob Burke Government Center in Joshua Tree.

(1) comment

Jack R Abbot

Understanding BNB's in Joshua Tree -

Will the proposed ordinance work?

Tourism in Joshua Tree has exploded in the last five years, with a doubling in annual visitors to the National Park from 1.5 million to nearly 3 million.

At over 400 times the village population of 7,400 at last count, 3 million guests is a huge number to accommodate. There would be nowhere for them to stay without the hundreds of BNB's that have mushroomed overnight. One could even say that the recent upswing of tourism and trending of Joshua Tree itself were directly fueled by the BNB phenomenon.

Some say that BNB's are the best thing that ever happened to the Joshua Tree economy -- if one could even consider the depressed state here ten years ago as an economy at all. Others see it as a bane on quality of living. Like all blessings, this one is mixed, as are the reactions to it. BNB's are blamed for noise, rude tourists, rising rents and a housing shortage.

Most complaints boil down to two main issues: noise and rents. Opposing voices outnumber more optimistic comments like this one on Nextdoor: "Airbnb has been a blessing to JT. So many blighted properties fixed. So much $$ pumped into the economy. Much better quality of humans around now too."

The County is caught in the middle, trying to draft an ordinance to address the complaints. The existing draft focuses on restrictions to curb abuses, but with no regard for the economic side. This is an unbalanced approach. Problems like noise occur in a minority of cases, and are not unique to this type of housing.

Rather than imposing detailed restrictions on the entire BNB community, the County can employ two powerful tools to resolve problems as they arise: the ability to cancel permits, and the vacation rental complaint line.

Some of the restrictions proposed have been contradictory. For instance, it has been proposed that no more than one unit should be allowed per parcel, that the owner must live on the property, and that renting out a portion of a home should not be allowed. Owners would only be able to rent out the place to themselves…

Complexity and clarity don't mix well. Authorities seem to be trying too many new rules to solve "the problem" and mollify disgruntled residents.

The current draft includes many provisions that will aggravate rather than mitigate the impact on housing availability. The ordinance works on the micro NIMBY level, to reduce the impact of BNBs on neighbors, by limiting the number of guests, or number of units per parcel.

But the real problem is where to house 3 million guests in a small village, without using up all the real estate. Limitations like these mean more, not fewer properties will be needed to absorb the influx of tourists! .

Setting limits on the number of guests according to the size of the parcel does make sense -- if the plan is to transition Joshua Tree into a more upscale community, rather than a low-rent, cheap vacation location. It's hard to have it both ways.

So, does the draft ordinance effectively address the problems raised by residents? I don't think so. Those who complained about rising rents may find that the new rules backfire. And the noise issue would be more effectively addressed directly, by a strict noise restriction ordinance and complaint hotline. It so happens that our house is surrounded by noisy neighbors, with barking dogs and so on. They are all homeowners, and there is not a thing we can do about it.

It is a mistake to assume all noise and rental cost problems are due to BNBs (STRs), and to think the solution is to crack down on them. Affordable rentals are a nationwide problem. Home prices have been soaring all over the state of California. Prices in Joshua Tree shot up to today's levels during the 2006 price bubble, too, when BNBs were unheard of.

Such detailed restrictions could arguably be curtailed or scrapped. Just start issuing permits for now -- and taking them away from the few bad apples out there. That will bring owners into line like nothing else. It will make it clearer what rules are really needed.

Fixing only what's broken is the way to optimize the two main, but conflicting demands of residents: to cut down on abuses, and to minimize the impact on housing. It won't optimize anything to make all owners suffer for the abuses of a few.

With permits, at least the County can start collecting funds to spend on things like policing nuisances. The fees may cause some marginal short-term rental (STR) operators to drop out of the business by themselves. Being a BNB host is not as lucrative as people imagine. They see a nightly rate of $100 and multiply by 30 and think, how grand, $3000 a month for a house. They don't see that most of the time it's rented only on the weekends, and hardly at all during the long, hot summer. The frequent vacancies bring you pretty close to the rate for a long-term rental. In many cases homeowners are doing it not to get rich, but to avoid hassles with long-term tenants, sad to say. The growth in STR's will level off at some point, too.

The other bad thing about the draft STR ordinance is that it reflects emotions voiced by those hostile to BNBs, which doesn't lead to a balanced policy. There are provisions that seem intent on penalizing or criminalizing BNBs. The requirement to record details of vehicles equates a stay in a BNB to a crime scene. This was dropped, but has been replaced with a Nanny State provision requiring owners to sit down with renters and get their signature on a copy of the regulations, with a notification of penalties. The draft ordinance runs about 30 pages. Who is going to read this? Even if it's done digitally. This rule is a non-productive burden of busy work on the County, on homeowners and on vacationers. Keep it short and simple!

The draft ordinance would AirBnb bookings made before the permit requirement goes into effect. There is no transition period to avoid business interruption while inspections are completed and permits are issued. To ease into it, the county could start by requesting streamlined, online permit applications with the quarterly TOT forms. Then start inspections on those properties that generate complaints.

Restrictions are being imposed on BNBs that are not applied to any other type of housing. The ordinance provides that BNBs can not host even one single day guest. Hard to think of any other examples of such a restriction, outside of a prison? Would you tell your kids they can't have a friend over, or your friends that you can't invite them for lunch?

Such is the punitive tone of this ordinance, that to my mind, it needs a fresh start.

* The County should pass a noise ordinance, to get at the actual problem that residents are suffering from most.

* Before deciding on rules limiting the capacity of STR's, they should make it clear to the community that this will not ease the housing shortage, but the contrary -- and then see if this is what people want.

Joshua Tree is finally coming into its own. Until a few years ago, homes here were going for around $70 a square foot, about one-third of what they cost to build. This made it a refuge from high housing costs (for my family too, we bought our first lot here back in 1960). However, there was no jobs base. The picture is changing rapidly, bringing growing pains. It takes time to adjust. Eventually, in large part thanks to the assets of the National Park, as well as the vacation rental industry, Joshua Tree could become a bright spot in the economic landscape of San Bernardino County.

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