South Lake Tahoe vacation-rental owners concerned about governing policies
Sara Cummings, a California-based second homeowner, had problems renewing a vacation home rental permit for a South Lake Tahoe house she bought in 2008.
In the past, she never encountered problems and paid her city-required bed taxes. Then last month, during an inspection, she was initially denied a renewed permit.
Cummings said she now needs to replace the deck on her 1950s-era Oak Avenue house ahead of schedule, something that she planned to do next summer. She was also told to relocate her hot tub.
“I certainly didn’t see this coming,” Cummings said.
South Lake Tahoe implemented new policies this year for vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, affecting everything from fee schedules to procedures for new applicants.
There are approximately 1,755 permitted vacation rentals in South Lake Tahoe, including large concentrations in residential areas like Tahoe Keys.
New policies in part addressed what the city said were growing concerns over things like noise and complaints.
New applicants must undergo a thorough inspection, an evaluation of how a potential vacation rental might impact the neighborhood, and must notify the neighbors. If the city receives objections, a public hearing is scheduled.
For current vacation homeowners like Cummings, the city only requires an initial inspection that evaluates updated vacation rental requirements like smoke detectors, emergency lighting and contact information of property managers.
Inspectors also evaluate whether currently permitted vacation home rentals meet building-code requirements in the year construction occurred.
Inspections cost $100. Re-inspection for a house that initially failed costs $80.
Cummings said that it would cost her thousands of dollars to comply with requirements before the city grants a permit renewal.
Steve Wenger owns a vacation home rental on Tata Lane that has been in his family since 1968. He, too, never had a problem renewing his vacation rental permit until this year.
Wenger now needs to install a paved driveway and guardrails on his stairway to his house before his permit is renewed.
“I can understand all the safety requirements, but all the other stuff is way out of line,” Wenger said.
Dave Walker, the city’s building official, said his inspectors are trying to be as lenient as possible without compromising safety. Because of the years homes were built in, the city purchased code books for 1955, 1964 and 1973 to be better informed.
“When we go out for inspection, we make note of the year of construction and proceed with that,” Walker said.
For issues like hot tubs, there is always the chance that it was installed without a permit and wasn’t disclosed to new owners. Unpermitted work is held to current building codes.
“Sometimes this is a simple issue that involves pulling a permit in making sure that the unit is safe,” Walker said.
That includes an emergency shut-off switch and a locked cover to keep kids out of hot tubs.
If a hot tub violates certain Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) regulations, the city must enforce those rules as well.
“A lot of our calls aren’t fun because we know the burden it puts on the owner,” Walker said. “But the whole intent is to make sure the homes are safe for people who stay in them.”
Driveways are also addressed in building codes, Walker said, but are regulated by TRPA.
Tom Lotshaw, TRPA’s public information officer, confirmed that his agency regulates driveways.
He said in the 1980s, TRPA started requiring “best management practices” for all new construction, retrofits and major permits in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Those practices, like driveways, prevent fine sediment from polluting the lake and reducing its clarity.
In the 1990s, TRPA enacted a retroactive measure that requires all homes to have some sort of paved driveway. The final deadline to comply was Oct. 15, 2008.
“Anyone who didn’t install paved driveways has been out of compliance for seven years,” Lotshaw said. “Nobody is grandfathered from the requirements.”
Lotshaw added that paved parking areas aren’t affected by the limits TRPA places on man-made construction in the Lake Tahoe Basin. There are programs to help evaluate what a property needs.
Inspection requirements aren’t the only concern homeowners and property managers have, according to Josh Priou and Jim Morris with Lake Tahoe Accommodations. The company manages vacation rentals, including Wenger’s and Cummings’ houses.
“This whole ordinance is being used to punish property owners who invested their money in Lake Tahoe and own vacation rentals,” Morris said.
Lake Tahoe Accommodations, along with other members of the South Lake Tahoe Vacation Rental Alliance, are suing the city over new fees. Recently, an El Dorado Superior Court judge allowed the group to pursue the argument that increased fees constitute an “illegal tax.”
Lake Tahoe Accommodations doesn’t object that fees are needed to manage the program; it’s just the increased amount.
The city’s vacation rental permit fees are based on a house’s maximum occupancy. A studio technically houses two people, so the city charges $150 for the permit. A permit for a three-bedroom house costs $600 and sleeps a maximum of 10.
The city also revised the fines for violations. Both tenants and owners are fined if they violate rules, like excessive noise or partying after 10 p.m.
For owners, it’s a warning on the first violation; and after the third one, it’s a $500 fine and higher permit fee costs. A fourth violation results in a $1,000 fine and the possibility of a revoked permit.
The revised fee schedule helps cover the cost of enforcement and additional staff.
Nancy Kerry, South Lake Tahoe’s city manager, explained in a June 9 email that permit fees cover an exhaustive list of costs, including staff time, enforcement and equipment.
Priou said that fees are excessive and specifically target vacation home rental owners.
“The city raised the fees totally randomly, without providing any proof of the need for the increase or for specifically what the money will be spent on,” he said.
He estimates that new fees will generate at least $500,000, on top of a surplus he said the city already has for its vacation home rental program.
Priou questions the validity of the amount, especially if the meat of the ordinance was approved to address noise complaints.
Of the nearly 760 noise complaints the city received in 2014, only 162 came from vacation rentals, according to South Lake Tahoe police data.
“The city singled out vacation rentals as the problem, but of all noise complaints vacation rentals only caused 25 percent of them,” Priou said.
For owners like Wenger, updated fees may have adverse impacts in the future.
“I think a lot of other people are going to look elsewhere for investment properties,” Wenger said. “With all these inspection fees and bills, I’m considering just renting my house full time and canceling the vacation-rental process.”
For more information on the city’s vacation rental policy, visit http://www.cityofslt.us/index.aspx?NID=453.