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Coastal Commission tells Laguna Beach to loosen up on Airbnb

Buttons handed out by opponents of short-term lodging, or vacation rentals, in Laguna Beach. The Coastal Commission voted on December 14 to approve the city's rules on vacation rentals only if it allows them in residential areas. Jill Replogle

The California Coastal Commission on Thursday rejected a ban on Airbnb-style short-term rentals in residential areas of Laguna Beach.  The decision comes as cities up and down the coast are struggling with how to balance residents' concerns about short-term rentals with cities' obligation to share the coast with visitors.

Commissioners voted 9-2 to reject the city’s proposal to include the ban in its local coastal program, which must be approved by the Coastal Commission. 

Commissioner Steve Padilla from Chula Vista said the city’s ban would result in a net loss of accommodations, thereby violating the commission’s mandate to protect and expand visitor-serving facilities. He also said the ban would keep people who can’t afford a hotel from staying in Laguna Beach. 

“It is discriminatory economically. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Many commissioners did, however, express sympathy for the city and for the many residents who spoke at the meeting to urge the commission to uphold the ban in order to preserve the character of local neighborhoods.

"I understand what motivated the [city] council,” said Commissioner Donne Brownsey, who said she and her husband decided against buying a house they liked in Ft. Bragg, where she lives, because it was on a street full of vacation rentals. 

Still, she voted to reject the Laguna Beach ban, saying she wished it “was slightly more tailored." 

The city adopted the regulations in 2016 after a year-long moratorium on all new short-term rental permits. A few dozen properties that had existing permits were allowed to continue operating as vacation rentals. 

Opponents of the ban say it drastically reduced the availability of rentals on sites like Airbnb. Currently, 81 units in the city have permits for short-term lodging, according to the city. But some people continue to rent homes and apartments illegally: There are currently 222 active rentals listed on Airbnb, according to AirDNA, which tracks market trends on the home-sharing site. 

The fight over short-term rentals has pitted neighbor against neighbor and sparked dozens of lawsuits across the country.

Neighbors of homes rented out on Airbnb often complain of noise, trash and parking conflicts. Opponents also say the increase in short-term rentals makes it harder for long-term renters to find a place to live. 

Laguna Beach resident and businessman Mark Christy said a dozen of his employees had been displaced in the last year and a half when their rented homes were turned into short-term rentals. 

“This isn’t just about Laguna, this is about all coastal communities,” he said. “Communities that are trying to retain their souls.”

Still, more than a dozen residents, including Dirk Van Weik, spoke in favor of rescinding the ban on short-term rentals. 

“Property rights are right up there with Constitutional rights," Van Weik said. "If you want to rent out your house, you should be able to do it.”

Over the past several years, the Coastal Commission has been expanding its stance in favor of short-term rentals, with some restrictions, as more and more cities crack down on them. The commission sees short-term rentals as a good lodging option, especially for families, that can be less expensive than a hotel. 

In recent years, the commission has forced cities, including Encinitas, Imperial Beach and Pismo Beach, to revise their rules on short-term rentals. In Encinitas, for example, the commission approved the city’s coastal plan only after it agreed to lift its ban on short-term rentals in neighborhoods west of Highway 101. 

In December 2016, then-commission Chairman Steve Kinsey sent a letter to all coastal cities and counties warning them that they needed commission approval before placing restrictions on short-term rentals. He said the commission would generally not support outright bans.