An idea that has long flourished in Europe is struggling to take root in Long Beach. Four old houses have been immaculately restored as bed and breakfast inns, stocked with fine furnishings and offering such touches as afternoon tea and back-yard fruit trees.
The inns provide an alternative to the sterility of most hotel rooms. Guests stay in the comfort of a private home amid turn-of-the-century surroundings and are treated to breakfast in the morning.
But owners have encountered problems.
Despite investments of time and thousands of dollars in revitalizing the old houses, occupancy rates have fallen short of expectations for some owners. Occupancy averages about 25%, they say.
In addition, some owners may be unwittingly breaking some city zoning laws.
The City Council gave its blessings to B & Bs less than two years ago, passing an ordinance that allows the conversion of old houses to overnight hostels--provided owners get a permit.
Four B & Bs are listed with the city Convention and Visitors Council as operating in or near the Willmore City Historical District north of downtown, but so far only one has gone through the permit process, according to Dennis Eschen, city zoning administrator.
But there's another rub. Eschen said city zoning laws flatly forbid renting rooms to overnight guests in private homes. However, a city licensing official said the city's business license law allows some B & Bs to accommodate overnight guests, with the following condition: An inn that has more than three bedrooms availble for paying guests must get a business license; an inn renting out three or fewer bedrooms does not need a license.
"Here we (the city) want to promote bed and breakfasts yet they cannot have more than so many people," said Councilman Evan Anderson Braude. "There is a limit that seems unrealistic for a bed and breakfast."
"They have a stupid rule, kind of a Catch-22 situation," said Braude, who represents the downtown area and has been studying ways of amending the rule that limits B & Bs to three bedrooms.
For B & B owners, the legal entanglements have complicated what started as a simple and appealing idea.
From Santa Cruz to San Diego, city officials say, old historic houses in coastal towns are being rescued from ruin and given new lives as immaculately restored bed and breakfast inns.
So why not Long Beach? The city has tourist attractions such as the Queen Mary, Spruce Goose, plenty of sun and long sandy beaches. And it has huge old houses. Tucked away in the historic Willmore City Historical District immediately north of downtown, the Victorian and craftsman-style houses had plenty of rooms and were well situated for tourists and business travelers alike.
A few pioneering owners decided to try the idea, restoring the houses to their past grandeur and adding some distinctive touches.
For example, there is the Lord Mayor's Inn, 435 Cedar Ave., that was named in honor of former occupant Charles H. Windham, who was elected mayor in 1911. Reuben and Laura Brasser serve guests homemade preserves from the fruit of the back-yard nectarine tree.
That five-bedroom inn, Eschen said, is the only one to obtain a permit from the city that exempts it from local residential zoning. The permit requires a $1,750 fee, permission of the neighbors and approval of the Planning Commission.
The Brassers said they had little trouble obtaining the permission of surrounding residents. They said that many thought a B & B would be a credit to the neighborhood.
Without the permit, Eschen said the only way an inn with more than three bedrooms would be legal is if its owners had continuously held a boarding house permit since the 1940s.
Some owners said they have tried to comply with the law.
"All I know is that I went down to the business license department and asked what I had to do to get a license," said Ione Washburn, proprietress of the Crane's Nest Bed and Breakfast Historical Inn, where she has three bedrooms available for guests. She said she was twice told by city business licensing officials that no license was required for the house on West 12th Street.
Marie Quirk, a city customer service representative who handles business licenses, said she has no choice but to let B & Bs operate without a license if they have fewer than three bedrooms.
"I've asked about this for the last year and a half," she said. And every time the answer is the same: the business-license issue went to a City Council committee and never emerged.
So far, the B & Bs have not exactly been turning away customers. Owners cite two factors for the meager occupancy rate--the historical district still is plagued by crime and graffiti, and the presence of B & Bs in Long Beach is not widely known.