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Do Californians have a right to Airbnb on the coast?

Buttons handed out by opponents of short-term lodging, or vacation rentals, in Laguna Beach.
Buttons handed out by opponents of short-term lodging, or vacation rentals, in Laguna Beach.
Jill Replogle

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Charlotte Masarik stood on her front porch with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, noting the names of each neighbor on her Laguna Beach street. 

“See, I know them all,” she said proudly after pointing out the last house. 

Masarik, who moved here from Alaska in 1989 with her husband, is among those who fought for tough restrictions on short-term vacation rentals in Laguna Beach. She said the ease of rental platforms like Airbnb and VRBO led to a proliferation of short-term rentals that were affecting the quality of life for Laguna Beach residents.

"It just mushroomed this last summer,” she said of vacation rentals in the city. "People come to Laguna to vacation. They come to party. They come to have a good time. And yet we, the next day, have to get up and go to work. So there's that huge conflict.” 

She and others complained that vacationers brought noise, trash and parking problems to the city. They also feared that short-term rentals would decrease home values for neighbors and tempt landlords to convert needed, long-term rental units into vacation rentals. 

A few blocks away from Masarik, Manrique Brenes started renting out his extra bedroom, which he had stopped using as an office, in 2015. 

At the time, he said, there were about 500 listings in Laguna Beach on Airbnb. It didn’t occur to him that he might need a city permit to rent. 

After he did so, he got a notice; and when he ignored that, he got a fine. Then he joined a group that hoped to convince the city council not to place harsh restrictions on short-term rentals. 

But Masarik’s group won. After a year-long moratorium, in September Laguna Beach permanently banned rentals for 30 days or less in residential neighborhood — although 81 units were grandfathered in. The new regulations allow short-term rentals in commercial zones.

Coastal Commission gets a say, too

In November, Brenes and his group sued the city over the new rules, arguing that Laguna Beach didn’t get permission to pass the ordinance from the California Coastal Commission, the state agency charged with regulating land and water use in California’s coastal zone. 

Another group made the same claim in a lawsuit filed against the city of San Clemente in July. 

Many coastal towns in Orange County, Los Angeles County and up and down the coast have passed laws restricting short-term rentals in recent years. But now, proponents of vacation homes may have a powerful ally in the California Coastal Commission.

In December, then-commission Chairman Steve Kinsey sent a letter to all coastal cities and counties saying they had to get commission approval before placing restrictions on short-term rentals. He said the commission would generally not support outright bans. 

Commission staff had previously warned Laguna Beach that it considered short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods a right, but the city passed its restrictive ordinance anyway and sent a lengthy letter to the Coastal Commission justifying its move.

The Coastal Commission’s new, more aggressive stance on the issue could tilt the battle in favor of short-term rentals along the California coast. The 1976 Coastal Act calls for protecting and encouraging “lower cost visitor and recreational facilities,” including overnight accommodations.  

The commission has struggled to fulfill that mandate in an increasingly expensive and crowded coastal zone. Seventy-five percent of people surveyed in a recent statewide poll from UCLA cited the lack of affordable accommodations as a barrier to accessing the coast.

Andrew Willis, the Coastal Commission's enforcement officer for Southern California, said the commission sees short-term rentals as one way to fill the gap in lower-cost accommodations.

"We're looking for ways to protect the ability of everyone, of all economic backgrounds, to get to the coast, and this seems to be one way,” Willis said.

He said he hoped city and county officials would take the commission’s recent letter as an invitation to work together to enact regulations that protect public access while addressing concerns from coastal residents. But the emphasis appears to be on access.

“We're going to start with the position that we'd like to maximize the opportunities for everyone of all economic backgrounds to get to the coast,” Willis said. 

Laguna Beach officials have said they believe the city’s short-term rental ordinance adequately addresses the Coastal Commission’s concerns. Still, the city has restarted processing applications for short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods, essentially putting its ban on hold.