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La Quinta is a city in the eastern Coachella Valley. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)

Stiffer fines and penalties, including a two-strikes rule, plus a required workshop for prospective vacation rental owners are among recommendations for changes to the city’s ordinance an ad-hoc committee is proposing to help address some short-term vacation rental problems in La Quinta.

City officials are studying ways to address and reduce complaints that have led to a moratorium on all new permits in La Quinta. 

The city currently has 1,290 permitted short-term vacation rentals. The moratorium is in effect until Feb. 2 but could be lifted earlier if an amended ordinance is adopted.

“We’ve had short-term rentals since 2008,” Mayor Pro Tem John Peña said, and when problems have come up, the city has addressed them by amending the ordinance.

But COVID-19 brought an increase in short-term vacation rentals when hotels and resorts were closed and people found them to be a safe way to get away amid the pandemic.

“This is the first year we’ve had the kinds of problems that we’ve had and it’s because of the pandemic. People are working from home, kids … can go to school from wherever they’re located as long as they have internet,” Pena said.

In August, the city issued a 90-day moratorium on all new permits after seeing a 267% increase in noise and other complaints over a three-month period, to give its ad-hoc committee time to zero in on the problems and recommend solutions. The council extended the moratorium to Feb. 2 earlier this month, with the hope it can be lifted sooner.

“We are trying to get to the core issue … and solve it,” Councilmember Robert Radi said.

La Quinta is not the only city in the Coachella Valley trying to address increased numbers of short-term vacation rentals and complaints since COVID-19 hit.

Cathedral City wants to phase them out all together by 2023.

Palm Desert, which already has a ban on short-term vacation rentals in single-family residential neighborhoods zoned R-1 and R-2 recently issued a moratorium on permits in areas zoned planned residential, except where allowed by the HOAs.

Rancho Mirage is in the process of eliminating short-term vacation rentals in all but private neighborhoods where they are allowed by the homeowners’ associations.

Palm Springs has also seen an uptick in complaints and citations issued, but currently has no plans to change its ordinance.

More applications, more complaints

La Quinta has received 93 new short-term vacation rental permits from April through June, with 16 more filed and waiting to be processed the day the moratorium was issued, officials said.

The city’s code compliance team reported 310 new cases of possible violations were opened as well, from April through June – a 267% increase over the 67 filed from January through March – all stemming from calls to a city hotline, staff said.

Nine permits were suspended in response to the complaints, officials said.

More than 90% of the complaints were noise related, which included music, yelling, screaming and loud talking late at night.

In July, City Manager Jon McMillen issued an executive order for stiffer penalties, including suspension of short-term vacation rental licenses after two code violations, which gave staff the tools it needed to beef up enforcement and reign in the problem properties.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, the city issued 127 citations and 31 suspensions – a significant increase from the previous three months when 31 citations and nine suspensions were issued, staff said Tuesday.

The moratorium applies only to new permits. Existing rentals can continue to operate and permits can be renewed providing the property is in good standing, Mayor Linda Evans said.

The recommendations presented Tuesday focused on enforcement issues only.

The ad-hoc group’s various subcommittees continue to research and analyze other short-term vacation rental issues, including density and if neighborhoods or geographic areas is over-saturated with rentals and will bring more suggestions for the council to consider in the coming weeks.

Tuesday’s presentation was a study session, so the council listened and offered input but did not take any formal action.

Some of the ad hoc committee’s recommendations are:

  • Two strikes: Under the city’s current ordinance, a property owner with three violations within one year will have their license suspended for a year. The committee is recommending two strikes.
  • Fines range $1,000 to $6,000 plus license suspension, depending on the violation and number of citations. Current fines range $500 to $5,000 depending on the violation.
  • Notify adjacent properties when a permit is revoked.
  • Quiet hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • No amplified noise between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Require applicants to attend a training workshop on the city’s rules prior to issuing a permit. Cost to the city estimated at $5,000 annually.

The city currently has a 24-hour hotline, but in response to complaints that the operators aren’t local, the committee recommends staffing a hotline locally. This would require the city hiring three to four employees to offer 24/7 service at an estimated cost of $250,000 per year.

On Monday, the city is switching to a new system which will make three attempts at 10-minute intervals to reach the property owner or local contact by phone within 30 minutes of receiving a complaint, Community Services Director Chris Escobedo said.

“By the third call, if there is no response, then sheriff’s (deputies) will be dispatched” to the rental property, Escobedo said.

The training workshop, Escobedo said, is the result of property owners and operators saying when cited for a violation they didn’t know the city’s rules.

Evans said it should be the applicants, not the city, that cover that $5,000 per year cost.

“There’s an expectation that if they’re taking a workshop, they’re paying for the workshop,” Evans said. “We don’t get to just add rules and add our cost without recouping that.”

Councilmember Steve Sanchez suggested the city do an educational video that would be posted online for the short-term vacation rental permit applicants to watch, then take a test after to earn certification.

Escobedo said the ad-hoc committee is also recommending that the property owner or operator must certify that the city’s rules have been provided to renters.

Councilmembers also asked that the committee define what constitutes “amplified sound.”

Council members also suggested there be a waiting period between permits when a property with a suspended license changes ownership. 

To help with enforcement, the council on Tuesday approved the hiring of an additional code compliance officer at an annual cost of about $85,543. The city currently has five code compliance officers. 

The ad-hoc committee was appointed by the council in February, before the pan to review the city’s ordinance for STVR and recommend any changes. The committee meets via zoom and meetings are livestreamed at Meeting dates and agendas can be accessed through the calendar on the city’s website,

Two hours of public comments

Before the study session, the council listened for about two hours to dozens of people voicing their support or opposition to short-term vacation rentals in person and via telephone.

All but a few were rental owners or property managers urging the city to lift the moratorium, saying it was punishing those who follow the rules along with those that don’t, jeopardizing their income while also hurting the city, which relies revenues from TOT and sales taxes.

“I opened a restaurant in La Quinta in 2019 and quickly fell in love with La Quinta, so my wife and decided to buy a home here, knowing that we could also rent it out as a short-term rental to help offset costs,” Victor Barbosa, owner of Tuscano’s & Brewquinta, told council members.

“When COVID hit, my business initially lost over 60% of my total sales and now I may be losing the ability to collect rent … as well,” Barbosa said.

He said short-term vacation renters make up about 25% of his restaurant business.

“If we eliminate short-term rentals I will be forced to sell my home, and I think it would also hurt our housing market in the city of La Quinta,” he said.

Carrie Breeswine, a homeowner in PGA West, was one of just a few that spoke against short-term rentals, saying that living next to them “is painful.”

“When somebody says, the only complaints are noise, parking and trash, how about … people that have their dogs off leash that attack me, attack my dog. How about drunken people that are roaming the golf course,” Breeswine said.

Desert Sun reporter Sherry Barkas covers the cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert. She can be reached at [email protected] or (760) 778-4694. Follow her on Twitter @TDSsherry

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