Laying down the law

County looks into regulating Airbnb-type rentals

Steven Smith and his wife have nine kids. They’re all grown up now, but when they were living at home the family needed a big house, so they bought one with six bedrooms.

Now that the kids are gone, however, the Smiths have more house than they need or can afford. But they don’t want to move because the house is still their family’s home base, where they gather to celebrate Christmas and other special occasions together and where so many family memories are stored.

That’s why they rent rooms in their house, just outside the city limits of Chico, via Airbnb, Smith told the Butte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Feb. 13). “Without Airbnb we’d be moving,” he said.

Compared to more urban areas, Butte County has relatively few short-term rentals—about 130 in the unincorporated county and 300 countywide, including the cities. But as county Development Services Director Tim Snellings pointed out, with its 4 million homeowners around the globe, Airbnb is now the largest hotel chain in the world.

The number of short-term rentals in Butte County is sure to grow, and the county needs to develop an ordinance to deal with such issues as zoning, safety, the transient occupancy tax (TOT), building codes and so on. Lacking permits, they all are operating illegally.

Snellings said the purpose of his presentation was to gather information and get a sense of the direction the board wanted to take with regard to an ordinance. His goal, he said, was to get a draft ordinance through the Planning Commission and to the supervisors by the end of 2018.

The ordinance is needed to “legitimize” the industry by putting in place performance standards for resolving neighborhood disputes (over, say, amplified music), collecting the TOT and regulating appropriate locations. “Our goal should be that a rental should have no more impact than a normal residence,” said Principal Planner Dan Breedon.

Breedon and Snellings recommended that short-term rentals be required to have an administrative permit. “It’s the simplest permit process we offer,” Breedon said. Such a permit is necessary so the county knows who is offering short-term rentals and where. Without such knowledge, the county has no way to make sure the rental is in an appropriate location and is safe.

Breedon and Snellings also suggested that it would be advisable to notify the neighbors when a short-term rental is starting up, acquainting them with applicable performance standards and providing information on how to contact its owner.

Despite references to rentals causing problems for neighbors, no one spoke out against allowing them in Butte County.

Several times Snellings referred to the ordinance Sonoma County adopted regulating short-term rentals. He’d included a copy of the ordinance in the supervisors’ background materials. “It’s working very well,” he said.

Later, however, District 5 (Paradise) Supervisor Doug Teeter suggested that staff “look at a couple other counties” to get a wider perspective. Board Chairman (and District 4 Supervisor) Steve Lambert recommended San Luis Obispo County.

The issue that concerned Chico resident Darcy Davis, who owns a home on Bidwell Avenue that has a second unit, was whether such units could be rented out via Airbnb. “I’ve never had a complaint,” she said, “and I’m there all the time.” The supervisors seemed inclined to allow such units to be rented out on a short-term basis.

Another issue had to do with collecting taxes. Butte County Treasurer-Tax Collector Peggy Moak suggested it could be difficult even to know who’s renting, much less collect taxes from them. There are services that can be hired to find them, but the cost could be as much or more than the money collected.

For his part, Teeter wanted to know why the permits would need to be renewed every year. “It’s a tracking tool to check complaint logs,” Snellings replied, noting that the administrative permit was “something you can revoke, like a business license.”

“Could we do it every two years or every 18 months?” District 2 Supervisor Larry Wahl asked.

“That’s up to you,” Snellings replied.