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SLO County unveils a draft ordinance to regulate inland vacation rentals which may close an events loophole

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If you’ve paid any attention to wedding photos on social media or in advertisements recently, you’ve probably noticed a lot of barns.

Oak trees, pale brown grass, and rustic barns are so hot right now for storybook weddings, with rolling vineyards or the ocean’s edge lurking somewhere in the background.

The trend is pulling wedding parties to the Central Coast, bringing new jobs, economic niches, and tourism dollars with them as private property owners, agriculturalists, and investors follow the booming wine industry’s lead by turning homesteads into event venues.

That trend is also inflaming the nerves of neighbors, who say that those events—which bring scores of people, noise, traffic, and dust—don’t belong in an otherwise rural area that’s historically agricultural and residential in nature.

The debate over what constitutes an appropriate use of private property is now focused on vacation rentals as San Luis Obispo County circulates a draft inland vacation rental ordinance (there’s already one for the coast) for review. It seeks to limit the number of guests that can stay at rural vacation rentals, limit the number of times it can be rented out, and require a permit for events. The ordinance would also fill a gap in existing laws that regulate coastal vacation rentals, wineries, and temporary events.

Events and permits

At a recent community meeting, county Planning and Building Director Jim Bergman stretched his arms out wide to illustrate how big the broader issue is.

“We think that looking at vacation rentals and events is starting to eat away at that cookie,” Bergman said.

Typically, vacation rentals are an entire house or apartment temporarily rented through an agent or websites like Airbnb and VRBO.

Some vacation rentals, however, have also become event venues, especially for weddings. As it is now, no permit is required for those private parties in the inland area.

That loophole prompted several vacation rental properties to be advertised and used as event venues, with little oversight from county code enforcement or public safety agencies. Wineries, however, and all other businesses, must obtain a permit for events.

Senior Planner Airlin Singewald told New Times that the ordinance’s intent is not to regulate events, but instead to make them subject to existing permit requirements. That won’t apply for occasional parties or weddings hosted by the property’s tenants or owners, nor will it ban occupants at a vacation rental from having a small gathering. 

“We’re not going to get in the business of regulating private parties,” Singewald said. “But when you have a vacation rental that’s advertising itself as a wedding venue, then it’s pretty clear that they should have a minor use permit.”

That permit will require code compliance and documentation that the events will bring no significant environmental impacts. Then, the county will assess what’s appropriate for that property.

The permits can be expensive and compliance can sometimes be a tricky issue, especially for agricultural barns designed to store equipment, feed, and animals—not for a large group of partiers.

Ron Field, a resident of Willow Creek Road west of Paso Robles, owns a house and a barn used for vacation rentals, and isn’t too happy with the ordinance, which he thinks wrongly targets property owners.

“I like where I live, and I’m not planning to impact the community in any significant way,” Field said. “I’m trying to supplement my income a little bit and get something going for my family if they eventually take over.”

Field said the profits helped fund the refurbishing of their barn—known as the Willow Creek Barn—and plans to install a new well to replace their once-productive artesian well, which recently dried up.

He knows that his neighbors are concerned with the associated traffic and noise impacts, but he thinks it’s a drop in the bucket in an area already crawling with events.

“We all have our issues,” he said. “We’re trying to survive in the area that we live in.”

Field said he operates only a vacation rental and does not host events. Neighbors, however, say there have been events at the Willow Creek Barn, which was advertised on kramerevents.com as “a perfect location for your next wedding or event” and characterized as a “family owned and operated Central Coast wedding venue.” After an inquiry from New Times, the venue was removed from the site’s listings, and Kramer Events owner Beau Kramer said that the property’s status as an events venue had become “unclear.”

Field’s neighbors formed the Willow Creek Preservation Group to lobby for stricter rules and code enforcement.

“If everybody was a good actor we wouldn’t need rules, but there are a few bad actors in the community,” Larry Stone, a member of the group, said at the community meeting. “The key to the whole thing: code enforcement, code enforcement, code enforcement.”

Adelaida tension

A trickle of complaints about events are coming from places like Edna Valley, south Atascadero, and east of Paso Robles, but the epicenter of discontent is still the greater Adelaida area west of Paso Robles.

Tension in Adelaida exploded in 2015 when Pasolivo applied for a permit to expand its operations and begin hosting events. At face value, the olive oil company’s plans to increase production, renovate a house as a vacation rental, and host events were nothing out of the ordinary. But for many residents and agriculturalists in the area, it was the final straw.

Residents argued that the area’s roadways have become overburdened and dangerous, and the noisier, commercial uses are changing the area’s core character.

“This area is agricultural, rural residential. So let’s look at what uses make sense with the infrastructure that we have in place,” said Alice Griselle, a member of Save Adelaida, which filed a legal challenge against Pasolivo (to be heard in court March 14 in Paso Robles) and is now pushing for stricter comprehensive policies.

After reluctantly approving Pasolivo’s project in July, the Board of Supervisors directed planning staff to start looking at options for ordinances. Those efforts are now directed toward vacation rentals.

“Honestly, I just don’t understand how the county can entertain vacation rentals in the Adelaida area,” Griselle said. “We don’t have the fire access; we don’t have the supportive services out here.”

Those sentiments irk Field.

“What’s the acceptable level for the community to hold? It’s not going to be zero,” he said. “We’re bringing in a lot of money and jobs, and to try to take it to zero, to me, is very selfish and inappropriate.”

Originally, comments on the draft ordinance were due by Feb. 26, but that deadline changed after several members of the wedding industry addressed the board on Feb. 16, saying their interests weren’t being adequately heard.

Kramer, who attended that meeting, told New Times that these new rules would devastate the industry and that the county should first overhaul the existing events permitting process.

“Do we want the impact of all these venues and the tourism they bring to go away, or we do we want to address them, mitigate their impacts, and still bring the tourism dollars to the area?” Kramer said.

The board voted 4-1 (1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham dissented) to postpone the deadline indefinitely and spend more time talking to stakeholders. Their discussion on the matter offered a taste of more to come.

“I just want to make sure that we’re not taking businesses out by the knees by bringing in new rules,” Supervisor Debbie Arnold said at the Feb. 16 meeting.

Mecham—who’s heard no shortage of concerns from the Adelaida residents he represents—lamented that he’s heard all this before, but hasn’t heard any solutions to the neighbors’ presistent concerns.

“We have to figure out a way that we can make something that works for events,” Mecham said. “But in my mind, just saying that vacation rentals can have any kind of an event that they want … I don’t think that that’s consideration towards neighbors. And I think that we’re going to have to make darn sure that we’re paying attention to their concerns, otherwise we’re going to have the room full with this side that are all for events, and that side of people that are going to be opposed to it.” 

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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