Mad River Union
TRINIDAD – For many years, vacation rentals have been a source of controversy in Trinidad.
At nearly every meeting of the Trinidad City Council, complaints were heard about late-night parties, large numbers of guests using up all the parking on the street, and the gradual transformation of residential neighborhoods into ersatz hotel districts.
City officials and community organizations noted that it was harder every year to find people willing to run for office or take on leadership roles because there were fewer and fewer permanent residents.
According to a city ordinance, “the proportion of homes being used primarily as vacation rentals grew from 5 percent in 2000 to approximately 18 percent in 2014.”
The city responded with study sessions, reports and eventually an ordinance dictating how many vacation rentals could legally operate, and outlining the conditions they had to meet.
Still, the problems continued. Residents complained that the city was unresponsive to their concerns, and that some vacation home operators responded to complaints with threats of litigation.
Finally a group of residents called Save Trinidad Neighborhoods took the problem to the Humboldt County Civil Grand Jury.
The jury took on the investigation. Civil grand juries are part of California’s legal system: they are composed of citizen volunteers, are supervised by a judge, and write a number of reports every year on problems involving local government within their county. The government being investigated is required by law to respond to the points raised by the Grand Jury (called Findings), and to state when (and if) it will follow up the Grand Jury’s recommendations. The Jury released its final report on June 25. It noted: “Issues we chose to investigate included a lack of enforcement of Short Term Rental (STR) regulations, the complaint appeal process, and possible conflicts of interest. After examining the city budget, it became clear the funds raised by the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) were vital to maintaining city services. We also found city officials have not been resolving some residents’ concerns or requests in a forthright, timely manner.”
The Jury also noted that Trinidad already had an ordinance in place, #2016-03, which if properly followed, would address these concerns.
At the Council meeting on Aug. 8, councilmembers discussed the Jury’s report. One item that disturbed some of the councilmembers was the issue of conflict of interest. Since some of the councilmembers and staff own or manage vacation rentals, potential for such conflict exists, although councilmembers generally recuse themselves when they believe it appropriate.
The Grand Jury’s recommendations to the City of Trinidad were to: Closely follow the city’s existing ordinance to deal with issues about short term rentals; use some of its Transient Occupancy Tax money to hire seasonal enforcement staff; be diligent about recusals when appropriate; and promptly notify complainants about the results of their complaints.
City Manager Dan Berman prepared a draft response, which he shared with the City Council and the public.
He recommended that the council choose two of its members to work with him and polish up the draft, and then have a final version ready at the September council meeting. The city generally agreed with most of the Jury’s findings, but for most specific items Berman responded “Partially agree and partially disagree.”
In addition to the city, the Grand Jury also requested the citizens’ group, Save Trinidad Neighborhoods (STN), to respond.
Resident Dorothy Lake pointed out that (STN) had already written a detailed response to the Jury’s report, and had hoped to have it posted on the city’s website. Berman replied that he had received the material the previous day, but did not post it.
The STN response was much more detailed than the city’s, mentioning that “Due to ongoing lack of public process and response by the city regarding STR complaints and appeals, it has become common place for a resident who files a complaint, or appeal, about an STR to receive a letter of litigation from the STR owner long before a response or determination has been made by the City Manager on the merits of the complaint. In addition to threats of lawsuits, residents continue to suffer verbal abuse and harassment, and have been wrongly accused of lying and creating false reports by STR owner/managers. If the city was fair and prompt in its follow-up of complaints and appeals, this would greatly alleviate residents’ anxiety surrounding STRs and restore their faith in the City’s ability to properly and effectively govern STRs.”