Guest column: An open letter to Washoe County commissioners on short-term rentals (opinion)
I was invited by Kelly Mullin, senior planner, to attend a July 24 roundtable discussion on short-term rentals. As a member of the Incline Village/Crystal Bay Citizens Advisory Board since 2014 and full-time resident of Incline Village for over 12 years, I’ve been observing and hearing about the negative effects of short-term rentals for some time.
I’ve had a presence in the Tahoe Basin for nearly half a century, initially as an owner/operator of a business in the “hospitality” industry and eventually a full-time resident here, so I realize there are differing perspectives. I have compiled a list of STR related problems that members of our community have identified and possible remedies that might be incorporated in forthcoming county regulations.
Before internet sites like Airbnb and VRBO, vacation rentals existed, but they were hardly widespread enough to affect the community character or disturb our fragile environment. Incline Village had a large population of full-time residents as well as second/vacation homes.
In the early days, vacation home owners would bring their families for a few weeks in the summer; some would also spend time here around the holidays in the winter. Not everyone had the same time off, so huge crowds were a rarity.
Unlike other Tahoe communities designed to accommodate tourists, there is only one hotel and one motel in Incline Village; no long line of hotels/motels along the main thoroughfare. Shopping areas are disconnected and parking is inadequate to support the large scale tourism that we have now.
Today’s initial counts total over 1,000 vacation rentals (that’s more than 12% of homes here), though the real number is likely much higher. That’s the equivalent of 2,000 or 3,000 unregulated hotel rooms, many with illegal, unpermitted kitchens, opening without any planning process, building inspection or environmental reviews.
There is a tendency to overload these units so our population increases exponentially during tourist season.
Recreational facilities here are funded locally, primarily by $7 million of mandatory IVGID “fees” assessed to local property owners (not countywide ad valorem property taxes or transient occupancy taxes) and were not scaled for the large influx of tourists we now experience. The facilities are overcrowded and parking is often non-existent.
Some will argue that tourism is the life blood and economic driver of the community. However, sometimes we can have just too much of a “good thing.” The ski industry has a term — “Comfortable Carrying Capacity” — to estimate the number of skiers a ski resort can safely and comfortably handle. I believe we have exceeded that capacity in reference to STRs.
We are at a point where we must reduce the number of vacation rentals. The list of negative impacts is long, but safety is our primary concern (especially in light of the Paradise Fire); illegal parking impedes access by emergency vehicles. Evacuation would be impossible during high tourist season. Our local sheriff says they do not have staff to respond to the volume of complaints about violations of existing regulations.
This is a complex problem and there is likely no “simple” solution. The current situation is no longer a mere “annoyance” — it is a real threat to our health and safety.
Even county staff acknowledge that vacation rentals are “technically” not allowed; the current development code contains language that states that unless a specific use appears in the list, it is not allowed. Transient rental of homes does not appear in the list of uses. Logic dictates that vacation rentals of less than 28 days are not permitted anywhere in the unincorporated area of Washoe County. And Chapter 25 (Business Licenses) goes on to state that licenses that do not comport with the Development Code are to be denied on that basis.
It would be wrong to suddenly pull the licenses from innocent operators, but it is also wrong to allow this unregulated unlawful use to go on indefinitely. Additionally, most of our CC&R’s contain language that prohibits any business use.
If the commissioners will not prohibit vacation rentals at this time, then at least consider a moratorium on new applications until there is a process and sufficient personnel in place to regulate STRs and eventually reduce the number currently operating in Incline Village through a lottery, stricter requirements, or some other equitable means.
We have seen the damaging effects of vacation rentals for years; the health, safety and well-being of our community members cannot be ignored.
Thank you for the opportunity to express our concerns.
Judy Miller is an Incline Village resident and member of the IV/CB Citizens Advisory Board.