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A B&B brouhaha at Big Bear

The mountain resort's inn owners want those who rent out their cabins to meet many of the same rules they do.

December 18, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

BIG BEAR LAKE, CALIF. — Jim McLean's Apples Bed and Breakfast Inn, with its signature apple pound cake, has long been a favorite spot for vacationers looking for a relaxing weekend in the San Bernardino Mountains.

But lately, McLean's getaway hasn't been packing them in.

McLean and other mountain bed-and-breakfast owners blame the drop in business on the thousands of cabin and vacation-home rentals in the city -- which pay lower taxes and face less-stringent health and safety codes.

"It's taken a pretty big chunk out of our business here," said McLean, who runs and lives at the inn with his wife, Barbara. He said his occupancy rate was now less than 30%.

Innkeepers and motel owners are fighting back by sponsoring a ballot measure that, if passed, will have the effect of severely restricting home rentals -- sending political ripples through usually laid-back Big Bear Lake.

Mayor Bill Jahn has joined many cabin owners who oppose the initiative, saying that the restrictions could destroy the town's image as a welcoming, affordable vacation and ski resort.

"The city's position is clear," Jahn said. "We need to have every kind of rental unit to satisfy the marketplace. Not everybody wants to stay in a bed and breakfast, and not everybody wants to stay in a private home."

The proposed measure would require owners of vacation rental homes to obtain a city business license, pay a city fee, carry liability insurance, provide one paved parking space per bedroom, comply with city fire, health and building codes and undergo annual inspections.

"We are very concerned about it because the proposal has a lot of requirements that would effectively eliminate vacation rentals in the city," said Jane Tomchik, a Big Bear resident who rents out her home.

There are close to 10,000 homes in Big Bear Lake, with 1,826 registered as vacation rentals, according to the California Department of Finance Demographic Research Unit.

But McLean estimated that close to 4,000 residents rented their homes in the past year, meaning that more than half of vacation rentals go unregulated and avoid paying business taxes.

The number has surged in five years, as has the purchase of second homes. Owners have bought homes with the hope of paying some of the mortgage by renting the property.

Rental homes are especially popular for weekend outings. Unlike beach communities, where stays can extend for weeks, the average sojourn to a Big Bear rental is two nights. Luxurious lakefront homes, with four or five bedrooms, can rent for between $500 to $1,000 for a weekend, according to several people who rent their homes.

A large portion of Big Bear Lake cabins remain unused much of the year and are exclusively second homes.

The revenue generated from rented homes is essential to the city's economy. A third of the city's revenue comes from tourism, city officials said.

McLean said he turned in more than 500 signatures of residents supporting the ballot measure, which calls for vacation home rentals to be strictly monitored. That is more than the signatures of 15% of registered voters needed to get it on the ballot. The city has until Jan. 25 to verify the signatures.

The home-rental issue is nothing new along the California coast.

In 1991, Carmel outlawed vacation rentals of less than 30 days.

The decision came amid an outcry that the community was being ruined by vacationers who, it was said, disrupted the small city on the Monterey Peninsula.

Mendocino, a popular destination for Bay Area residents, allows only up to 46 rentals in town at any given time.

And Cambria and Cayucos, coastal towns in San Luis Obispo County, established buffer zones that limit vacationers to two per block, following complaints that vacationers littered the towns with trash.

Inn owners and some of Big Bear Lake's permanent residents have the same complaints, contending that vacationers discard trash in the street, hog scarce parking spots and party late into the evening.

"You become bad neighbors with these people," said Joe Francuz, a Big Bear Lake resident for eight years. "They don't really care if they keep you up all night or throw garbage all over the place, because they are only going to be there for a couple days."

But those who rent their homes insist they are providing a needed service.

"If we weren't here, people just wouldn't have anywhere to vacation," said Nick Lanza, general manager of Big Bear Vacations, a vacation-home rental agency. "There's just not enough beds in Big Bear."

McLean has sued Big Bear Lake, charging that the city discriminates against his business by not applying the same laws to home rentals. The case is expected to be heard within three months, said T. Matthew Phillips, his attorney.

Hoping to ease the situation, San Bernardino County supervisors passed an ordinance in August governing short-term rentals in unincorporated mountain communities.

It defines short-term rentals as stays of less than 30 days and requires a county permit and payment of occupancy taxes if homes are offered as vacation rentals.

"The idea was to recognize that renting homes was a business that needed some sort of regulating," said Supervisor Dennis Hansberger.

But the ordinance sparked objections from both sides.

Vacation-home owners argued that the regulations would stall the real estate market because some people wouldn't want to buy if there were restrictions on renting out the cabin.

And inn owners said the ordinance was not easily enforceable because it did not mandate inspection of interiors.

"They basically passed an ordinance that didn't meet any of our concerns," said Bob Pool, owner of Sleepy Forest Cottages.

McLean said it was an issue of fairness.

"All we want is equal treatment," McLean said. "We just want everybody to be inspected and the playing field to be level."

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jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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