San Clemente considers more limits on vacation rentals

A spike in vacation rentals near the coast is leading San Clemente to look at permitting the businesses in designated visitor-serving districts, while limiting them elsewhere to owner-occupied properties.

City planning commissioners, at the direction of the City Council, have been meeting weekly to draft a proposed zoning ordinance governing vacation rentals. The concept discussed Wednesday night could remove many of the vacation rentals now operating in residential neighborhoods, leaving only ones that are owner-occupied.

The commission will meet again next week – 6 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall – to consider sending a recommendation to the City Council, which could take it up March 15.

Commissioners’ consensus so far is to permit vacation rentals in four designated visitor-serving parts of town — the Pier Bowl area, portions of downtown that allow mixed-use buildings, a section of North Beach and a strip of buildings along El Camino Real at the south end of town.

Elsewhere, existing short-term rentals would be required to shut down two years after adoption of the new zoning code, except for owner-occupied ones. Those would be governed by rules yet to be defined. The commission also is looking at imposing density caps. Parking requirements could affect the potential for vacation rentals as well.

San Clemente, like other Orange County cities, is seeing a proliferation of residential properties, many of them bought up by investors who turn homes or apartments into vacation rentals. The industry is flourishing with worldwide online marketing.

Besides investors, some locals have opened their homes or apartments as short-term rentals, either for profit or to supplement their retirement. Some, on limited incomes, say that short-term rentals pay the mortgage and keep them in their home.

San Clemente has 440 permitted vacation rentals, 193 of which opened in 2015, the city said. Neighbors of some have complained about overcrowding, partying, noise, parking impacts and loss of the quality of life.

Owners of vacation rentals say they are only a small fraction of total dwellings in the city and the vast majority are good neighbors, contributing to the local economy. They say the city should focus on weeding out the few problem ones before imposing restrictions or a ban.

The City Council, on a 3-1 vote on Feb. 2, set ground rules on the operation of vacation rentals. In addition, all owners must apply for a yearly permit, and existing vacation rentals can stay for now but will be subject to any new zoning restrictions the City Council introduces in March.

“The City Council is putting in all sorts of ironclad rules on parties, noises, parking, everything you could imagine to squelch these party houses …,” said local resident Jim Bieber, who has two vacation rental properties. “Why don’t we let this process and the free market run its course, clamp down on the bad people, which the City Council has done, and revisit this issue to see if we’ve resolved it … ?”

“Ironclad rules don’t work,” local resident Jim Laurent told commissioners. He said he lives next to a virtual hotel, and the city is settling a lawsuit with his neighbor, limiting occupancy to 10. “But that’s overnight occupancy,” he said. “Guests are OK. So I could still have the potential, like I’ve seen in the past, of 20-plus people in the backyard of this property until our city has the 10 o’clock shut-off, which a lot of times goes past that, and all day long.”

Planning commissioners and city staff are drawing up zoning standards such as parking, trash bins, “quiet hours,” yearly limits on rental activity, a permit process and two-year amortization of rental units to be phased out.

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