COMMENTARY | By Keila dos Santos
The Short-Term Rental Vote Gets Personal
Everyone understands the struggle when it comes to bad neighbors, so why are owners of short-term rental units putting up such a fight?
On May 1, at three hours and one minute into the Ventura County Board of Supervisors public hearing on whether to restrict the operation of STRs (short-term rentals, e.g. AirBnB rentals) in the unincorporated Ojai Valley, Steve Bennett threw out a statement that completely shifted the dialogue. He said, “The people of Ojai need help now.” I won’t spend the next thousand words picking on Steve Bennett, but it makes sense to unpack this idea a bit.
When Bennett made this statement, he was referring to what is colloquially being called “The Arbolada Report.” The “Impacted Neighbors Collaborative Responses to Agenda Items” report is a collection of statements regarding regulations and enforcement of home-shares and STRs.
The information, testimony, and research was provided to the Ventura County Planning Commission by Kelsie Zimmerman, Starr Crabtree, Beverlee Park-Sherbo, and Jon Whaley.This written legal brief was intended as an assessment of the impact of short-term rentals on Foothill Road.
So, here’s the situation: humanization or personalization is a propaganda technique used to generate sympathy around a political issue — and it works. By dropping names and claiming that ” the people of Ojai need help now, ” the issue of STRs is now “personalized.”
“Many of us are feeling like our local politics are mirroring our national politics and that there are some relative newcomers to Ojai that have a different vision for it, perhaps a vision of a wealthy, elitist bedroom community,” said Kim McLin of Red Tail Ranch.
Whereas the upcoming hearing on June 12 will affect short-term rentals in the entire unincorporated area of Ojai, this report exclusively reports on tourism (and STR) impacted neighborhood homes in the Arbolada, a leafy neighborhood between El Norte and Foothill roads.
Checking the document against public records, a few misconceptions emerge.
On the cover page, the report says, “Report Completed before Ojai Tourist Bureau Contract was Recinded (sic).” The actual agency, the Ojai Valley Visitors Bureau was, in fact, recently disbanded. This was largely due to the efforts of a new, well-organized, political force that recently arrived in Ojai, who gathered hundreds of signatures on petitions to have the city’s tourism funding put to a vote.
“It’s sad to see Ojai divided like this,” said resident and STR owner Julie Hahn. Regarding tourism in the valley, Andrew Stasse said, “This (tourism) is the business model that has evolved over the last 100 years … tourism dependency can be augmented with other clean local business models, however this will take political will, careful planning and time.” This statement is at least partially supported by data from the City of Ojai Basic Financial Statement. General Fund Revenues from TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) were 29% and 34% of the total fund for Fiscal years 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively; TOT of course, being a tax on tourism-oriented businesses.
Despite being a tourism-centric economy, representing the actual day-to-day citizens of Ojai has gotten more challenging. According to a councilperson who asked to remain anonymous, the cost of running a City Council campaign has quadrupled over the last couple campaigns. Anyone who has lived in Ojai over the last few years can probably tell you exactly why … despite this “Ojai First” group’s best attempts to fly under the radar.
Ojai resident and 2016 city council candidate, Chris Gardner said, “be assured, while you may not see the name “Ojai First” in this paper or online, its members are actively coordinating.” In fact, on Jan. 18, 2018 Michael Haley and David Byrne were fined $488 for violations by Fair Political Practices Commission. These fines were assessed due to their involvement with Ojai First. We’ve linked to the complaint here and pasted an excerpt of the public record below.
Since then, Ojai First has deleted their Facebook page (or hidden it) but they still have active campaign videos on Youtube.
And, there’s still some record of their existence on Facebook:
A Targeted Approach to the Issues
On April 21st, Gardner (targeted above) stated to the Ojai Valley News that “… (STR) complaints came in rapid fire from the lawyer-led members of Ojai First who keep a “hit list” of targets on an Excel spreadsheet.”
It’s easy to deny the validity of a claim as bitterness by a political candidate who ran and was defeated. But, when contacting the police to retrieve the public records of short-term rental complaints on the properties listed in The Arbolada Report, a few curious things happened.
First, despite over a dozen houses cited in The Arbolada Report, only two calls were made to the police since 2016. Whereas source names were redacted on the complaints, the files did include photographs, one in which the user’s bookmarks yielded an interesting revelation:
It looks like the spreadsheet does, in fact exist.
And if you review the browser tabs where this excerpt came from, it also appears that this neighbor was scoping out six other vacation rentals. Of course, this is a completely circumstantial coincidence but it’s worth mentioning for a complete picture.
STRs Operating in Unincorporated Ojai
Currently, there are sixty-seven (67) operational, licensed, tax-paying, STRs in the unincorporated area. Many of these properties’ owners feel that they have been targeted by strategic code compliance issues (and alleged drone surveillance) as a form of economic warfare.
They’ve been required to installed secondary septic systems, spent weeks organizing themselves for county compliance officials, have been stifled by liens on their properties, and have even been personally threatened … among other things.
One of those owners, Julie Hahn said, “At a certain point, you’ve got to fight with everything because you just can’t afford to go back anymore.” Hahn and many others have spent tens of thousands (some over $100,000) in contractor fees, materials, deconstruction, reconstruction and penalties.
The efficacy of organized action (by the opposition) on this issue has inspired owners. Property owners are turning to CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and threatening personal damages against the County of Ventura. They’ve “lawyered up” and are ready to put the measure down, by telling their side of the story.
Since public records contradict The Arbolada Report’s claims, STR operators are invoking multiple precedents in California’s Code of Regulations regarding heresy, witness testimonies, and legislative due diligence. Furthermore, TRU claims that the economic impact of a decrease in tourist accommodations would devastate the area and that the county must support an action like this with reports from experts, not aggravated neighbors.
Kim McLin of Red Tail Ranch (targeted in the image above) said in a statement for the Ojai Valley News, “I can only hope that the many stories…will help our community see that the STR issue is not black-and-white but that there is a lot of gray.”
Comparatively, The Arbolada Report routinely offers divisive statements like, “Tourism and business has creeped into our residential lives like a virus.” It calls for sting operations, special personnel, and specifies “Common Ways to Get Around Regulations”
Fighting for their ability to operate STRS, this newly organized activist group of resident owners have incorporated under the name TRU (Temporary Rental Units) Ojai in order to raise funds and to operate as a unified front. They are preparing to attack the narrative at the heart of the matter; persistent xenophobia that has woven its way into the fabric of our nation’s culture.
What’s Happening this Tuesday…
Next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting will be the seventh public hearing on the matter of short-term rentals in the unincorporated area of Ojai. The measure would affect houses in Upper Ojai, the East End, Matilija Canyon, and other outlying areas; in addition to some houses in the Foothill/Arbolada area.
Andrew Stasse says, “I have debated the issue of STRs as I can see merit in both sides of the argument. But similar to a divorce, I have come to the conclusion that the best solution probably lies somewhere in the middle of the debate, where both sides may not be happy with the outcome.”
Everything showcased here is public knowledge and this decision means a lot to some of your neighbors. Hopefully, you understand a little more about the ideological struggle being waged in your front yard and maybe are interested in participating in this narrative.
Often, times the people who show up to County Supervisor meetings are well-organized and persistent, but the public is invited and encouraged to participate. If you have an opinion on this issue, arriving early to submit a comment card is appropriate and recommended.
This meeting may be your last chance to make a statement on the short-term rental issue, for or against. The next Board of Supervisors meeting is at 5 p.m. on June 12th, 2018. If you don’t know what to say, click here for some ideas provided by TRU Ojai, but feel free to tell your own story.
If you can’t make it in person, you can always submit a letter. If you would like to connect with TRU Ojai to make a donation or see how you can help, email TRUOJAI@gmail.com. We’d offer to connect you with Ojai First too, but it seems as though they’ve gone dark. Since we’re good neighbors, we’ll respectfully oblige their right to privacy.