Can you really call a 3-2 split vote a “recommendation?” On Wednesday, Mammoth Lakes Planning Commissioners gave anything but unanimous approval for a recommendation to Town Council for staff to proceed with “necessary analysis of a work program that could allow transient rentals in single-family neighborhoods.”
The problem, according to opponents who commented during the lengthy public hearing, is that most neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations (HOAs) wouldn’t allow for the rentals, even if Town zoning could be amended to provide for them. Town Attorney Andrew Morris has presented a roadmap of sorts with language that could be used to amend the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&R) documents. Still some say that doesn’t sufficiently address some of the major impediments to putting those properties on the tax rolls, assuming the homeowners want to go there in the first place.
Public comment was entirely one-sided, but only because there were no nightly rental proponents in attendance. Later in the meeting, Commission Chair Rhonda Duggan recalled that none of the three Planning Commission meetings drew any proponents.
Local resident Gregg Martino expressed dismay that the Town is wasting time and effort on the issues.
“Supposedly this is to generate more income,” he said, but the vast majority of CC&Rs prohibit it “You’d have to get a permit for a business, and this clearly would be a business,” Martino explained, adding that the intent is to prohibit just this type of use in residential areas.
“It puts the burden on the HOAs to enforce them,” Martino pointed out. Citing the Town’s deficiency when it comes to code compliance enforcement, he indicated that with the current zoning in place, the code has more teeth. Martino basically opined that if the whole purpose is to raise more revenue for the Town (and he balked at figures of $2 million plus annually), then upwards of 75% of the HOAs would have to opt in to generate money of any significance, which he considered highly unlikely.
“Most don’t want different people coming in every weekend,” he pointed out. “It’s hard enough to get HOAs to amend CC&Rs on things that aren’t controversial, and this definitely is controversial. You’re talking about a major change in a neighborhood and its quality of life.”
Lanie Somers-Standifer referenced recent comments made in this paper by Mike Vance, Mammoth’s Community Development Director from 1998-2003, who said, “Why, at a 35% occupancy average, would you be looking at expanding your bed base?” She objected to adding perhaps 600 more units to a marketplace with no perceivable demand. Standifer also mentioned Mono County’s decision this week to continue the process on a proposed General Plan amendment that would allow for individual or groups of homeowners to apply for “transient rental zoning overlays,” giving them the ability to conduct nightly rentals. (See Kirkner’s story on page 7 for more.)
Standifer said 360 signatures have been gathered from nightly rental opponents, and that Council should consider the economic market. “We have much bigger fish to fry,” she remarked.
Ed Thacher, a second homeowner since 1998, said he doesn’t want to worry about the excess street traffic, vandalism, trespassing, theft, party house nuisances and trash he thinks would accompany nightly rentals. “My neighbors know me and I know them,” he said.
Cheryl Witherill mentioned that opposition to rentals isn’t just coming from homeowners, making a point that the issue also involves the lodging community. She and other lodging and hotel owners, such as Stacy Schaubmayer, worry about the impact on lodging that already isn’t able to fill its available product.
“I’m surprised this came back up,” she said, echoing others’ similar thoughts. “It puts burdens on HOAs that are problematic, and the interpretation could lead to pitting neighbor against neighbor. I’m on two HOAs, and it’s not an easy task tackling CC&R issues.”
What this really amounts to, Witherill stated, is a General Plan issue. “It’s not that we’re not allowing it,” she said, “but what does the General Plan call for?” Bring it up in the spring when it could be examined properly, she proposed, but added that the good of the community is more important than any extra dollars that might be gained.
Thom Heller commented that had nightly rentals been brought up during the last General Plan update, the idea would have been hotly contested. It could, going forward, end up being the subject of potential litigation. Heller also mentioned that if a house is put in a rental program, those would not be exempt from the same inspections and fire code compliance, among other things, that apply to nightly rentals.
Sandy Hogan, who sits on the Mammoth Knolls HOA, suggested there are single-family “trophy” homes that are legally listed as being “condos,” which could be rented nightly, pointing to Stonegate and Tallus as examples. “How many do we have?” she asked. “Maybe we’re not making it known or marketing them properly, or collecting the right amount of Transient Occupancy Tax, but it’s not like we don’t already have this product. We do.”
She further suggested inventorying all such trophy homes, find out the occupancy and give that information to the TOT enforcement committee. “Then we can answer the question: do we need to go further?”
During Commission comments, Elizabeth Tenney indicated that part of the Planning Commission’s job is to make sure these types of items are consistent with the General Plan. “I have yet to see how this is consistent with the General Plan,” she stated. Tenney blasted the notion that nightly rental inventory might be useful, charging that some investors are looking for outlets in a soft economy, while mortgage-challenged homeowners would love extra money from nightly rentals.
“We have 3,000 units approved and forthcoming in the pipeline,” she told the room. “This should be shelved indefinitely. We should be talking about economic development that’s good for the Town, not just a few homeowners. Chasing a few alleged extra dollars is not how we should spend our time.”
Commissioner Dave Harvey disagreed. “This is not a new issue, but I’m seeing conflicting messages,” he said. “I keep hearing we won’t get anything from it, but resorts such as Aspen have specific product targeted to a specific demographic, where two to three families can room together, celebrate holidays or enjoy their time together.”
Harvey said that for Mammoth to prosper, it has to get away from weekend business and diversify its product offering. “How do we make [our product] the best? How do we develop a product that brings 7, 10 or even 12 night stays?”
Commissioner Mickey Brown took that thought further. “DRCEDS (the Town’s Destination Resort Community & Economic Development Strategy) lays out very specific guidelines about how to become a destination resort,” she noted. Charging that Mammoth has a “critical shortage” of large-format lodging, Brown thinks that large groups either go to condos or townhomes, or they look at single-family homes.
Commissioner Colin Fernie said he favored not shelving the issue, saying, “Tabling it is not productive,” but did think perhaps calls to let it wait until spring to be addressed, rather than in the middle of ski season, might be best.
Chair Duggan insisted that the town’s occupancy is not going to get a boost by putting more high-end product on the market. “Developers have been advised what the market needs, and we didn’t encourage many large properties, since there is demand for those only a few select times of year.” She thinks there is “lots of opportunity not met” with the town’s existing product.
The recommendation’s final language included holding off until spring 2013. Tenney went on record as saying she doubted staff would have any more time then than it does now, though Town Principal Planner Ellen Clark said in any case a nightly rentals workplan wouldn’t be added until the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1 next year.
During the vote, Fernie, Harvey and Brown voted to recommend that Council direct staff to move forward with the analysis; Tenney and Duggan voted decidedly against the recommendation.
Whether Council decides to direct staff to proceed or drop the issue altogether won’t be known until it takes up the Commission’s recommendation early next year.