My wife and I are second homeowners in Mammoth Lakes, and have been for some time. Over the years we have developed many friendships here and believe that we would like to spend the majority of our time here, now that we are retired.
This summer we have tried to pay close attention to the local political issues and, with that in mind, attended the recent forum and panel discussion on Measure Z.
Many thanks to The Board of Realtors for sponsoring the event, which I believe was intended as an educational forum and not a debate. Education on the issue is apparently very much needed, as at least one panel member seemed not to understand the breadth of the measure.
In answer to a question from the moderator regarding potential unintended consequences, the panelist displayed her lack of understanding when she said simply, “get a variance.” Subsequent to that statement, the moderator queried the town manager confirming that under this initiative, a zoning change would not be possible through a variance. What makes this lack of understanding particularly worrisome is that the panel member (and former mayor) in question is apparently the creator of the referendum, and one of the main forces behind it.
While I will concede that knowing every detail about almost anything, can be very difficult if not impossible (reference the recent Presidential debates), the fact of whether or not a variance could still be used under Measure Z, is critical! It is absolutely the difference between whether the initiative is palatable or not.
As second homeowners, my wife and I are not invited to have a say in the matter via the voting booth, which in itself is a travesty given the very significant investment that second homeowners represent relative to property ownership in Mammoth Lakes, so perhaps my most effective means of weighing in on the issue is in expressing my opinion through this editorial letter.
That said; I believe this initiative is ill-conceived and not well thought out. It lacks fairness in omitting second homeowners from the decision making process, it is fraught with potential unintended consequences, and it infringes on our most efficient and traditional form of governance. In short, it is an abuse of the initiative process; and my opinion that this measure should not pass, has very little to do with any thoughts I may have on transient occupancy, which is a different discussion altogether.
My concern is for an efficient representative government. If my wife and I move full time to Mammoth Lakes, we want to know that important local decisions are made by a well intentioned, well educated town council (and we have no reason to think that the current council doesn’t qualify), and not by special interest groups, or ongoing, very costly special elections.
Don’t be hollow
The majority of Town Council is pushing forward on allowing nightly rentals in residential neighborhoods. According to Councilman Colin Fernie, to “… keep (current) zoning in place and enforce existing rules is unrealistic.” Fernie was responding to a ten-year Colorado Association of Ski Town study which looked at the burgeoning growth of VRBs (online vacation rental businesses).
VRBs (Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway, Flipkey, etc.) are changing the hospitality industry and the character of neighborhoods in resort communities by encouraging homeowners to rent rooms in their homes in neighborhoods where zoning and CC&Rs prohibit nightly rentals.
Cities and counties have responded by passing ordinances that require hosts to register their short-term residential rentals, meet existing ordinances, and collect transient occupancy tax (TOT). These efforts have met with little success. Only 10 percent of hosts in San Francisco (5,000 VRB listings) have registered and follow the city ordinances, leaving the city to bear the cost and impacts of nuisance complaints and lost tax revenues.
If only 10 percent of San Francisco’s hosts follow the city’s ordinance, what makes Mammoth’s Town Council think they will have greater compliance? The Council also might want to read the 2014-15 Grand Jury report which found a poor working environment in the Town’ Finance Department. The report raised “… the possibilities that the Town is giving preferential treatment to some operators, losing tax revenues to which it is legally entitled, and that operators are, in some instances, overpaying.”
Grand Jury’s recommendation 4: The Town manager needs to set staffing in Finance sufficient to handle collections and audits. Town Manager’s response: “To commit more resources at this time would result in the diminishment of other Town services… The Town has limited resources to meet a number of demands, some of which have a higher priority (emphasis added)…”
What are the town’s “higher” priorities that supplant collection of revenue? And what’s the point of opening up short-term rentals in neighborhoods if the town is currently “losing tax revenues?”
Illegal VRB rentals are a national issue. In response, California SB 593 would require “online vacation rental sites” to collect TOT and report booking information. The bill would also prohibit VRBs from listing properties where prohibited by local ordinances.
Airbnb, a $13 billion VRB corporation, has slammed the bill arguing to “hand over broad swaths of confidential, personal information to bureaucrats who will sift through it in search of potential violations of local planning and zoning laws” would harm consumer privacy. In other words, it’s a host’s responsibility to comply with local ordinances. VRBs are just the innocent venue soliciting and promoting hosts to rent space in their homes even where it is prohibited.
The vote “No” on Measure Z folks that VRB product types can attract new visitors. Short-term residential rentals can provide homeowners with additional income to pay mortgages. There is the potential for additional TOT revenue (if collected) for parks, roads, marketing, and government services. Businesses will benefit from increased tourism.
The vote “Yes” on Measure Z folks argue that Mammoth Lakes currently has 180 homes that are legally zoned for overnight transient rentals. If there is a community wide zoning change, 1,932 residential homes will be added to Mammoth’s rental pool, most will have off-site management (The key is under the mat.). A largely unregulated neighborhood transient rental market will diminish the quality of life in residential neighborhoods and with off-site management the number of nuisance complaints regarding noise, parking, trash, parties, etc, will increase. Lodging businesses are at a competitive disadvantage by having to meet building and fire codes, licensing, parking and handicap requirements, etc. If the town is currently failing to collect TOT from legal rentals, what makes anyone think the town is going to police VRB rentals and receive a windfall of additional TOT revenues from an industry that thrives on avoiding paying TOT?
Turning neighborhoods into lodging districts will also force workforce employees out of the community. Note: in other resort communities, investors have purchased residential properties and converted them to short-term rentals, driving workers down valley.
Mammoth is unique, an island surrounded by a forest, it doesn’t have down valley communities to house its workforce. Once the doors are open for short-term residential rentals fewer workforce houses will be available. No, this is not workforce housing for hourly wage employees, it is workforce housing for teachers, nurses, doctors, public safety officers, and mid-management people who make more than the average medium income. These are the people who have time to run for public office, volunteer for after-school coaching, who are members of Lions and Rotary, and who provide the essential services—mechanics, contractors, accountants, etc. that every “community” needs.
Once a resort community hollows out, loses it residential neighborhoods; it’s “unrealistic” to think a community can get it back. Vote “Yes” on Measure Z.
MCWD won’t back down
The Mammoth Community Water District (MCWD) takes the reliability and quality of local water supplies very seriously. And rightly so – it’s our job to make sure that customers have enough clean, affordable water to sustain our community’s businesses and families. Persistent drought has had an enormous impact on our water resources, just as it has for public water agencies across the state. Our district is working hard to meet tough new state standards on water conservation, and our customers are doing a great job conserving our limited water supplies. But, as if the drought isn’t bad enough, another very real and potentially damaging threat to our water resources exists. Because of it, our water supply situation may get worse before it gets better.
Ormat Technologies’ (Ormat) plant expansion, Casa Diablo IV, will double geothermal pumping near the Town of Mammoth Lakes. The environmental review document was certified by the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District (GBUAPCD) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the project despite an inadequate impact analysis and strong opposition from MCWD, elected officials and local community groups. In fact, the environmental analysis was flawed in many ways. Various ‘experts’ who opined on the potential groundwater impacts were paid for by Ormat, inadequate attention was given to MCWD’s expressed concerns, and the modeling used to justify the project fails to address the vulnerability of our water supplies to geothermal pumping.
Some residents – and even this paper – may be wondering why MCWD continues to fight Ormat’s geothermal expansion. It’s time to set the record straight.
MCWD has long observed that Ormat’s operations could be impacting our water quality and supplies. Temperatures in MCWD groundwater supply wells closest to the geothermal production area planned for expansion are hotter than wells farther south. A 2011 report prepared by Ormat’s hydrologic consultant documents this and reports that one of the hotter MCWD groundwater wells also has trace water quality constituents in proportions found in the geothermal reservoir. The report’s speculation that these observations can be explained by heat conducting through impermeable rock does not change MCWD’s view that deep monitoring wells in the area are necessary to substantiate this speculation before the project moves forward.
Beyond potential impacts to water quality, our groundwater supplies themselves could be reduced. That’s a major issue – the Mammoth Lakes community has been almost entirely dependent on groundwater supplies since last year due to the historic drought. We have found warmer temperatures in our groundwater wells closest to the planned geothermal expansion area. What does this mean? We believe it means the cold-water aquifer and the hot geothermal zones could be connected through fractured rock that allows flow between the two zones. So, as Ormat increases pumping down below, MCWD groundwater supplies could be concurrently drawn down. The absence of any deep monitoring wells in the area between the geothermal production and MCWD’s groundwater supplies leaves too much uncertainty.
We also feel there is a direct cause and effect between Ormat’s deep geothermal pumping in the planned geothermal expansion area near the Shady Rest Park and our forest resources. The increase in tree deaths, soil temperatures, and hydrogen sulfide concentrations in the area has been attributed by U.S. Geological Survey scientists to Ormat’s operations.
For these reasons, MCWD will continue fighting on behalf of the community for a more comprehensive plan to protect our environment and groundwater resources, and to ensure mitigation measures are in place should impacts occur. We therefore refuse to sit on the sidelines as our water and environment are threatened by a corporation that appears only to be motivated by shareholders, versus the community in which it operates.
MCWD recently made the difficult decision to appeal the Mono County Superior Court’s denial of our lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the environmental review for Ormat’s expansion project. We do not take the litigation lightly and aim to protect taxpayer dollars. In fact, the effort to protect our water will not impact rates. MCWD is expecting to implement a nominal rate increase in the coming months to cover operation costs associated with our water delivery system, an action that is separate from our legal dispute with Ormat.
Our request is simple and reasonable: Ormat must be held responsible for adequately monitoring for adverse impacts to the community’s water supply and mitigating any impacts due to their increased geothermal pumping. There is a right way and wrong way to conduct geothermal operations. For Mammoth Lakes, the right way for the company to conduct geothermal operations in our Town includes carefully monitoring the impacts its wells may be having on the quality and quantity of our groundwater supplies and forest resources, mitigating for those impacts, and ensuring that problems are detected early enough for adequate mitigation and do not persist. We hope that you will join us in the fight to ensure a sustainable and healthy water future.
Tom R. Smith
MCWD Board President