By Deb Murphy
The town of Mammoth Lakes has been flirting with the idea of short-term rentals in single-family residential zones for years with no real consummation. If the Let Mammoth Decide group succeeds with the October 6 special election on Measure Z, flirting is where this relationship may end.
On paper, Z doesn’t really stop short-term rentals in the city’s residential zones; it simply stops the Town Council from changes in zoning to expand short-term rentals into residential neighborhoods without voter approval.
Okay, it does stop short-term rentals, assuming those who vote “yes” on Z will also vote “no” on any attempt to expand the practice.
With just three weeks left before Z-Day, the fur is flying in Mammoth with financial conundrums and “change with the times” on one side and invasion of the body snatchers (rowdy tourists) scenarios on the other.
If Measure Z sounds like town residents don’t trust their Town Council, that’s because they don’t according to Tom Gaunt from Let Mammoth Decide. “Some people see Mammoth Lakes as a resort, then a community,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve lived here most of my life, 41 years. I’m raising a family here. I see the town as a community, a community that would be destroyed if we allow short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.”
That’s the crux of the Yes argument: neighborhoods of home-owners and long-term renters degraded by week-end tourists and the subsequent, potential impacts on housing costs for the town’s work force.
The Vote No on Z side of the debate cites lost opportunities and lost Transient Occupancy Taxes, the source of 60 percent of the town’s income. Where the Yes people see rowdy, noisy short-term renters, the No folks see well-heeled families willing to spend $550 a night for all the comforts of home.
Jay Cole sees the Vote No on Z’s mission as educating voters on the implications of Measure Z. “Governing by initiative is dangerous and costly,” he said. “It sets a dangerous precedent.” The option would be for both sides of the issue to come to the table and discuss how to mitigate any impact on residential neighborhoods. “The Town Council has to represent all the stakeholders in Mammoth,” he said. “And that’s best served by the transparent process of the council…. The Council is striving to develop plans (for short-term rentals in residential zones) to protect neighborhoods.”
The potential dollar signs from an increase in TOT have to be appealing to Mammoth Lakes after four years of historically low snow fall and the 2012 settlement with Mammoth Lakes Land Acquisition LLC that commits the town to a $29.5 million payment, in $2 million increments over 23 years.
Both sides of the debate will face off at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Mammoth Lakes Art Center on Old Mammoth Road.
The Town Council set dealing with short-term rentals in residential zones as a priority back in December directing the Planning Department to develop a work plan. “Planning just provided the information,” said Manager Sandra Moberly.
Planning submitted its work program progress March 4, including data on current permitted short-term rentals. The key word here is “permitted,” both in terms of allowed by zoning and renting with a TOT certificate. Council directed staff to “move forward with the quality of life ordinance and work program,” Moberly said.
There are nine permitted short-term single-family rentals in Mammoth Lakes out of a 74 where zoning allows the practice. An additional 76 vacant lots “could be improved with a single family home which could be rented on a transient basis.” In addition, the report states, there are 11 single family “like product” out of a total of 38 zoned for transient rentals. The report uses the example of Tallus, Stonegate and Mammoth Gateway as “like product.”
What the report doesn’t include is the number of illegal single-family home rentals, either outside the appropriate zones or not TOT certified. Both sides on Measure Z agree that the town’s ability to move against these violations is not currently effective.
According to Moberly, the California Environmental Quality Act comes into play. The level of CEQA analysis would depend on the size of the area proposed for zoning changes.
Interestingly enough, the Council passed a Quality of Life ordinance with little if any controversy, according to Moberly, this month. The ordinances defines “transient rental” and establishes a series of requirements and restrictions that would encourage careful vetting of potential renters. Exterior signs, displayed when the home is rented, will have a 24/7 contact number. The person at the end of that phone number has to respond within an hour and resolve any issues within 24 hours.
Occupancy would be restricted to two people per bedroom, plus two with no activity that would exceed those occupancy limits. In other words, wild parties in a three-bedroom home will be limited to eight revelers. Parking would be restricted to the number of parking spaces allocated to the unit. Operating a transient rental without a Business License Tax Certificate would result in a $500 fine for the first violation, upped to $1,000 for the second and subsequent violations.