By Tiobe Barron
Illegal residential rentals in Ojai came under fire Tuesday, as City Council members discussed their stance on what they call “vacation rentals.”
City officials say they have found numerous ads online for properties that are within city limits and in violation of the city’s policy on the “bed tax,” and estimate a loss of $30,000 to $60,000 per year through the illegal rentals.
According to an administrative report prepared by city manager Rob Clark, a “rental of a hotel room, time share, or any portion of any type of residential unit for less than 30 days is considered to be a transient rental and is subject to 10 percent occupancy tax. Owners of these units are required to obtain a business license and to collect and remit transient occupancy tax. Transient rental is not permitted in residential zones without first obtaining a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.”
How to enforce the policy seems to be up for much debate. Options for fighting the alleged drain on city coffers range from citing those who have complaints filed against them, collecting back taxes, imposing a $1,000-per-day fine, and putting a lien on property as a last resort.
Ojai resident Bob Daddi warned the council to approach the proposed policy with extreme caution. “The fees are outrageous,” he said. “Before you go any further with this and turn it into a disaster, turn to the Fair Housing Act … I’m not asking you to give up money, I’m just asking you not to turn this into a circus … It’s more critical than our little Golden State Water issue. Get the money, get them to comply, charge them the fees, but just do it in a little bit different manner and I think it’ll work.”
Mayor Carol Smith, clearly flustered by Daddi’s remarks, was quick to defend her position. “I don’t like to be threatened,” she said before snapping at Daddi to take his seat. “That’s a big amount of money for us … (and) private property is private property … What can I say, (Daddi’s comments are) melodramatic.”
Councilwoman Carlon Strobel also weighed in on the topic. “For the city, this is almost a new program,” she said. “We need to put the policy in place before we can start enforcing it.”
Most council members seemed in agreement that any policy should be enforced across the board — rather than based solely on complaints — out of fairness to those who are in compliance. There also appeared to be a near-consensus on the need for more public input.
Seemingly more controversial and problematic was whether or not these types of rentals should be permitted within residential neighborhoods in Ojai at all. There was mention of extra wear on the roads due to increased traffic, and a burden on neighbors and neighborhoods due to noise, etc.
Ojai resident Doug Adrianson said he came to the council meeting expressly to thank the members for responding to a complaint he filed about his neighbor advertising his home as a vacation resort replete with a conference center, despite the fact that the neighborhood is not mixed-use.
“I want to thank council for putting some real teeth into this,” he said. “It’s about respect for neighbors, and for the law.”
Councilwoman Sue Horgan also interjected. “I’d like to shut them down,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t want to encourage them. I don’t think they are appropriate.”
Councilman Paul Blatz countered, saying, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to take out some sort of resentment on these types (of rentals) … If we’re going to allow them, we should be collecting taxes and allow public input. If not, we shut them down, let the public address their concerns.”
Resident Kenley Neufeld pointed out that these rentals do play an important function in our community, especially when an event takes place that fills all rooms at the legitimate inns and lodgings. Mayor pro tem Betsy Clapp echoed this sentiment, adding that Ojai has recently renovated the Libbey Bowl to draw larger crowds, and hotel rooms do fill up. Adrianson interrupted council members, after the allotted window for public comments had been closed, to express a clarification that he worried a blanket prohibition would damage Ojai.
“I’d be interested to know what the public’s feeling is on this,” said Blatz.
Horgan and Clapp mirrored this sentiment, and the council agreed to bring the policy back at a future date for further revision.
Other items of note at the meeting included a public hearing on an ordinance amending a section of the Ojai Municipal Code to allow a method for the public to submit their input in regards to whether or not a business is defined by the city as a “formula business,” essentially a chain store. Said Chamber of Commerce CEO Scott Eicher, “We must trust (these applicant businesses) but verify. There must be an instrument within the ordinance to verify (the information set forth by the applicant). The ease with which Best Western was granted eliminated the ordinance as we thought it would take effect. It took the guts right out of it.” Councilwoman Clapp agreed, saying, “It was ridiculous. It is an element that needs to be dealt with.”