Pro-Airbnb Residents Fight Laguna Beach

By DON DEBENEDICTIS

laguna-beachSANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Property owners have sued Laguna Beach, claiming a new ordinance restricting short-term rentals from Airbnb and other online sites violates California’s tough environmental laws.

The ordinance, which largely prohibits vacation rentals in residential areas of the famous seaside art colony, will cause “significant adverse environmental impacts” by changing land uses, the Beach Vacations Coalition claims in its Monday lawsuit in Orange County Court.

The unincorporated association says the City Council approved the law in September without complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires a proper environmental impact report.

It also claims the ordinance discriminates against low- and moderate-income families who cannot afford to vacation in Laguna Beach, and that it violates the California Coastal Act.

It asks the court to order the city to set aside the ordinance and its regulations, which it calls “the Project,” until the city complies with CEQA, the Coastal Act and planning and zoning laws.

Unless the court grants the order, “the impacts resulting from the city’s decision to approve the Project will extend to areas in which petitioner’s members, supporters and numerous citizens represented by petitioner live and will directly and adversely affect their living environment,” the coalition says.

The city’s attorney, Philip Kohn with Rutan & Tucker, was in a City Council meeting late Tuesday and could not be reached. Media representatives for Airbnb and competitor HomeAway did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The coalition, which was formed specifically to fight the ordinance, calls its lawsuit a “citizens’ action” to protect the public interest. It named the California Coastal Commission as the real party in interest.

A spokeswoman for the Coastal Commission said it has not seen the lawsuit.

“We just received the city’s application to regulate short-term rentals and have put an item on our December agenda asking for a one-year time extension to consider the matter,” Noaki Schwartz said in an email.

Although enormously popular with some homeowners and travelers, cities and consumer advocates worry that the short-term rentals facilitated by Airbnb and its competitors are constricting the already tight market in affordable housing by luring landlords with an eye to lucrative vacation rentals.

Many cities and some states are trying to regulate the new industry, and a raft of litigation has been filed by plaintiffs on both sides of the issue.

Airbnb and potential landlords — such as the Beach Vacations Coalition — are entangled in lawsuits in San Francisco, New York, Anaheim, Santa Monica and Chicago, among others. Airbnb also is involved in litigation in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Berlin, according to The New York Times.

None of those lawsuits appear to rely on environmental laws, however.

The Beach Vacations Coalition says Laguna Beach’s ordinance illegally enforces a change in how property owners in the coastal resort have used their property for many years.

“For decades property owners in Laguna have made their residential units available for short-term rental to tourists and vacationers without objection” from the city, according to the complaint.

The new ordinance allows vacation rentals only in commercial areas, such as apartments above storefronts. The city should have conducted a review and made findings CEQA before adopting it, the coalition says.

It also claims the ordinance violates a state law that prohibits municipal planning or zoning actions that discriminate against residents or tenants based on income.

The group says Laguna Beach’s short-term rental units historically have been available “to very low-, low- and moderate-income persons and families … who otherwise could not afford the high cost of staying in hotels in Laguna.”

“However, a few outspoken Laguna residents do not want to share their city with visiting and vacationing persons and families of very low-, low- and moderate-income, and began prodding the city to ban the short-term rental units these persons and families can afford,” the group says.

The coalition’s attorney John McClendon, with Leibold McClendon & Mann in Irvine, was away from the office this week and did not respond to a phone message or email seeking comment.