After negative national media attention, South Lake Tahoe City Council is considering lowering its fines for vacation home rental violations.
Over the last several months, coverage on the fines has emerged in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle with headlines like "Welcome to Tahoe. Here's what can get you fined $1,000."
Particular attention has been paid to the issuance of $1,000 fines each to VHR renters and owners for parking on the street or partially on an unpaved surface.
VHR operators say it's hurting their booking rates and ultimately the tourism-based economy.
"The Tahoe Chamber and Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority have received numerous calls and emails regarding the severity of the fines," said chamber President Steve Teshara. "People are saying they aren't going to come … it's having a serious financial impact on the community already."
Kathy Liebhardt of Tahoe Destination Vacation Rental said her bookings are down 40 percent for the upcoming summer compared to last year.
"I'm for regulations and fees and fines, but I'm not for the prices," said Liebhardt.
At Tuesday's council meeting words like "war" and "vigilantism" were used to describe the state of affairs following the implementation of the stricter regulations.
Maureen Stuhlman, the city's code compliance auditor for VHRs, said her department has experienced calls where a resident will report six addresses for minor parking infractions.
"They were clearly driving around looking for violations," said Stuhlman. "Our [community service officers] don't go out looking for tires on the dirt. They are always called in by neighbors. It's a way for them to get a strike on the permit."
Under the new ordinance, VHR operators with three violations in two years will have their permit revoked.
After discussion, City Council directed staff to come back with suggestions for amendments to the VHR fine structure.
"I think it would be wise to drop down the parking fine to $250," said Mayor Wendy David. "The intent was always to come back in six months to see how the ordinance was working."
Council also discussed the possibility of lowering the fines for other violations and reevaluating whether the fines should be applied to both the renter and owner.
"It has sickened me to be seen as a community that does not welcome tourists," said David. "I'm saddened to hear about this vigilantism for parking when people are just up here to enjoy themselves."
Though there was talk of amending parts of the ordinance — such as eliminating the prohibition of public street parking and adding in an exemption for home owners associations that wish to self-regulate trash and parking — council was advised against it at this time by Sergio Rudin, an attorney from Burke, Williams and Sorensen filling in for Interim City Attorney Nira Doherty.
An initiative awaiting qualification for this November's ballot builds off of the city's existing ordinance, therefore any changes to the code would be null should the measure pass, explained Rudin.
The measure, among other provisions, would tighten occupancy limits and create an oversight committee tasked with providing recommendations to council for managing the VHR industry.
However, this initiative competes with another question that appears headed for the ballot, which asks voters if VHRs should be phased out of residential areas over a three-year period.
"My general recommendation is that staff be prepared to present an ordinance with amendments in the event that the ballot initiative does not qualify for the ballot or does not pass," said Rudin.
The proposed changes to the VHR fines, which would go into effect immediately after council approval, are set to come before council at the next meeting on Tuesday, June 5.