South Lake Tahoe, Property Owners in Talks Over Anti-Rental Law

Lake Tahoe, looking northwest toward Truckee. (William Dotinga)

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (CN) – The parties embroiled in a lawsuit over a voter-approved initiative to limit the number of vacation rentals in South Lake Tahoe are in mediation, according to the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Andrew Pierce, attorney for the South Lake Tahoe Property Owners, said both sides are conferring and the possibility of a new voter initiative or vacation rental ordinance that incorporates more of the perspective of property owners remains on the table.

“We are in a dialogue and we have discussed the possibility of a more moderate ballot measure that the majority of the people can agree on,” Pierce said in an interview Wednesday. “There were a lot of stakeholders not represented in this and I think parties want to come up with a solution that doesn’t so severely punish the economy of the town.”

Meanwhile, city attorney Heather Stroud confirmed that the two sides agreed to stipulations regarding the preliminary injunction, which sought to prevent the city from enacting many of the rules relating to Measure T. Voters narrowly passed the measure this past November.

Specifically, the city has agreed to hold off implementing the new maximum occupancy limits, which the measure limited to 12.

“Some of the houses affected by this can hold 20 or 30 people, but the city agreed not to enforce the limit of 12 for the duration of the lawsuit,” Pierce said.

While the city agreed to delay implementation of that provision, many of the other provisions included in Measure T will still take effect, including a ban on new permits for vacation rental properties within the city limits.

“The rest of the measure will be in effect while we decide the merits,” Stroud said.

Measure T also bans vacation rentals in some residential areas altogether, but that ban does take effect until 2021. Both sides expressed confidence the matter would be resolved by then, particularly as they continue to confer.

A special hearing was scheduled for Thursday, at which time an El Dorado County judge will hear arguments on the preliminary injunction. The hearing was moved back a week to Jan. 31, though both sides expect it to be vacated.

Measure T was approved to address the long simmering acrimony between residents and vacation rentals, which tourists rent using websites like Airbnb, VRBO and other sites.

Residents have long complained tourists staying in residential neighborhoods create problems like noise, traffic congestion, parking problems and trash – a particularly serious issue since South Lake Tahoe is prime bear country.

Improperly stowed trash attracts bears, which endanger humans and also create so-called problem bears – animals so accustomed to searching for food in trash that they need to be trapped and, in some cases, euthanized. The deaths cause outrage among the many wildlife advocates that live full-time near Lake Tahoe.

But Pierce says Measure T was more about favoring full-time residents to the detriment of property owners who live in Tahoe seasonally or occasionally.

“It’s about saying the town is for local residents only,” he said.

He said any ordinance that discriminates against part-time residents is unconstitutional. He said case law supports part-time residents, including decisions finding Alaska can’t pay residents portions of oil revenues based on how long they live in the state.

The group of property owners also believe the ordinance should have contained a grandfather clause for current owners.

“The law generally holds that when you have an existing use it can’t just be outlawed,” Pierce said.

The city hasn’t decided whether it will fight the case in court, Stroud said, but did say it agreed to hold off implementing occupancy limits to avoid forcing vacation rentals to cancel reservations made before Measure T was approved.

Pierce said he anticipates the case, should it make it to court, will be heard sometime this summer.

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