Napa County, grand jury differ on how to tackle illegal vacation rentals

Napa County and the county grand jury agree that having an estimated 450 illegal, short-term vacation rentals in the unincorporated area is bad, but they differ over how to crack down on them.

Using homes for illegal vacation rentals reduces the housing supply for residents and workers. It also cuts down on the hotel tax money going to the county and its cities, the grand jury said in a June 24 report.

No argument there from the county, which oversees land use in the unincorporated areas outside of cities.

“The multiple negative impacts of short-term rentals on community quality of life are why the county continues to prohibit their use,” the county said in a response approved this week by the Board of Supervisors.

So far, the county and grand jury are on the same page. But what should be done about those miscreants who violate the law prohibiting house rentals of 30 days or less?

Napa County relies on public complaints to learn about possible code violations, rather than hunting them down, the grand jury wrote. County officials admitted that code enforcement is “understaffed,” which limits the ability to handle complaints in a timely or thorough manner, it said.

Evaluate staffing ratios versus complaints received and cases investigated by Dec. 31, the grand jury advised the county.

Napa County disagreed. Over the past five years, the county has increased code enforcement staff from three people to eight people. It has investigated 50 short-term rental cases and resolved half of them, the county’s response said.

“Some violations are resolved quickly, while others take years to complete,” the county responded. “The number of complaints received is not an appropriate means for determining the level of compliance staffing required.”

Other types of code violations pose a greater risk to people and the environment than illegal short-term rentals, the county responded. The county doesn’t want to base staffing or budgeting decisions on this one activity.

But that wasn’t the county’s final word on the topic. The county came up with another way to beef up enforcement when addressing another grand jury point on how illegal vacation home owners avoid getting caught.

Both the grand jury and county agreed – at least partially—that owners of the vacation homes know the county’s code enforcement weak points and are adept at avoiding detection and prosecution.

Owners know that, with rare exceptions, county code officials work regular workweek hours, the grand jury said. Many savvy owners advertise their properties online only during nights and weekends.

“While officials do what they can to stem the tide of non-permitted rentals, they acknowledge that the property owners are one step ahead of the enforcement teams,” the grand jury wrote.

Napa County agreed that online advertising is more robust in the evenings and on weekends. Also, owners do such things as avoid using specific addresses in their advertisements and minimize the amount of information they post.

“The county remains actively committed to successfully prosecuting short-term rental violations; however, the underground economy makes investigation and compliance a more intensive effort,” the county wrote.

The grand jury wants the county to consider having new code enforcement hires work evenings and weekends, the better to catch wily, law-dodging owners of vacation rentals.

But, the county responded, code compliance officers must consult with county staff on technical issues, testify in court, work with the County Counsel’s office on cases and coordinate with the District Attorney’s office when cases involve criminal violations. All of that involves a five-day workweek with regular hours.

Instead, the county wants to hire a consultant to monitor the illegal, short-term rental market, including on weekends and after-hours. The consultant will assist the county with evidence collection by providing affidavit and expert witness services.

In the interim, county staff will provide weekend code compliance coverage for two months by being on call, the county response said.

In addition, the county will consider hiring a private service to investigate code compliance complaints after-hours and on weekends, the response said. The Sheriff’s Office had helped with enforcement during these times, but has other priorities.

The grand jury recommended the county by June 30, 2020 explore ways to reduce the number of illegal vacation rentals.

Napa County responded by again pointing out it plans to hire a consultant to monitor vacation rental advertising. It also wants to increase public awareness that short-term house rentals are illegal in unincorporated areas.

“However, both efforts are going to take time to have an impact,” the county responded.

Napa County plans to report on short-term rental compliance toward the end of 2020.

The county last year took Calistoga Wine LLC to court for allegedly running an illegal vacation rental on Silverado Trail near St. Helena. The grand jury said it strongly supports these type of actions and the public show of enforcement.

“The Board of Supervisors appreciates the grand jury commending enforcement staff’s efforts,” the county responded.

September 20, 2019

Napa Valley Register

By Barry Eberling