The Cambrian

Want to rent a vacation home in SLO County? You may have fewer options

A firm in San Francisco has been methodically scouring various rent-by-owner websites to track down unpermitted vacation rental homes in unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County.

County supervisors hired Host Compliance for nearly $72,000 in September to identify and contact for a year any vacation rentals being advertised and operated in those areas, including Cambria and San Simeon, through such websites as Air BnB and VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), which is part of HomeAway Family.

The firm continually scans the websites, finding new listings and checking them for zoning and permit compliance.

Unlicensed vacation rentals usually don’t pay the transient occupancy tax that such operations are required to collect and send to the county.

The county has regulations about where and how a short-term (or vacation) rental can be operated.

With minimum-separation regulations in Cambria, Cayucos, Avila Beach and Adelaide, a vacation rental operating too close to an already licensed short-term rental likely would have to apply for a distance variance or stop renting.

Many vacation rental homes are operated responsibly, according to the ordinances and laws that regulate the short-term rentals. Some are managed by their owners, and others are managed by firms that specialize in providing vacation-rental facilities. There are several such firms on the North Coast.

The process

Host Compliance uses a multistage process to find rogue rentals and bring them into compliance with the law, Supervisor Bruce Gibson told members of the North Coast Advisory Council in April. Host Compliance finds the unlicensed operations, then sends progressively stern letters about what has to happen for the operations to be legal.

Gibson, Bruce - 2014 official
Bruce Gibson

According to county Code Enforcement’s latest report to county supervisors, the program has so far identified and confirmed addresses on more than 450 potentially unlicensed properties countywide, many of them in Cambria and Cayucos. Owners of vacation rentals in some other areas of the county have an easier pathway to compliance, because the county doesn’t have ordinances about vacation rentals there.

“Soft” compliance letters were sent to the 450 or so property owners in February, and so far, that courtesy-letter effort has produced 55 new business licenses and planning approvals.

If others don’t respond, code-enforcement cases will be opened, and more conventional enforcement letters will be sent, advising the vacation-rental owners that continued noncompliance could result in fines of $500 per day.

According to Gibson, the county had gotten a lot of complaints about illegal vacation rentals not paying transient occupancy tax, as required, and making it harder for the property owners who were operating the right way and doing the right thing.

He introduced the Host Compliance concept for his fellow supervisors to consider. Gibson said the tax that will be paid by the newly permitted vacation rentals will likely pay for the firm’s contract “and then some.”

Ag stays

Vacation-rental problems aren’t limited to urbanized areas. Vacation rentals, farmstays, homestays and other short-term rental arrangements are cropping up in rural areas, too.

NCAC agriculture representative Dawn Dunlap told the council in February that vacationers have been short-term renting a home in the Adelaida Mountains east of Cambria. She said some of those renters have trespassed and poached chanterelle mushrooms.

“It’s a misdemeanor to trespass on property where food is being raised,” she said of ranches and farms.