In South Lake Tahoe, residents are restless over vacationers

This rental home in the Bijou 2 neighborhood, one of the older sections of housing in South Lake Tahoe, has four bedrooms, two baths and sleeps eight. The number of Tahoe rentals grew during the recession, and longtime residents are growing weary of partying vacationers.
This rental home in the Bijou 2 neighborhood, one of the older sections of housing in South Lake Tahoe, has four bedrooms, two baths and sleeps eight. The number of Tahoe rentals grew during the recession, and longtime residents are growing weary of partying vacationers. Sacramento Bee file

Longtime South Lake Tahoe resident Susanne Hoy has problems with her neighbors – whoever they are.

She is annoyed by the people loudly frolicking in hot tubs at 2:30 a.m. near her home by the lakeshore. She is frustrated with occupants of a nearby house who left out six uncovered garbage cans, a lure for hungry bears. She is disturbed by the clamor from another house, licensed for 12 occupants, that once filled up with 30 members of a college fraternity.

“This neighborhood suffers from homes that are now simply businesses,” Hoy, 71, complained at a recent City Council workshop on how to police South Lake Tahoe’s 1,574 houses that are leased out as vacation rentals.

In this picturesque mountain hamlet, renowned for its breathtaking ski runs, shimmering sapphire lake and nearby casinos, the city is responding to protests from permanent residents who complain they are losing their sense of community in the face of ever-increasing tourist traffic, loud music and partying strangers.

The reality in South Lake Tahoe these days is that many neighborhoods near the lake or Tahoe’s alpine slopes have fewer owner-occupied homes than full-time vacation rentals. So now the City Council is considering reforms that seek to preserve the city’s treasured tourism economy while also providing some care and consideration for its increasingly agitated full-time residents.

This month, South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Brian Uhler and City Manager Nancy Kerry proposed remedies that would impose escalating fines for tenants or fines and city permit revocations for vacation home landlords for such things as late-night hot-tubbing, loud music and failure to secure trash cans from bears.

Under their proposal, fines for playing amplified music or using hot tubs after 10 p.m. would start at $250, escalate to $1,000 by the third cited offense and result in revocation of the rental property permit after the fourth violation.

The plan, expected to be voted on by the City Council this spring, would also limit the number of occupants of vacation homes to two adults per actual bedroom, meaning that extra friends won’t be able to just party down and flop for the night on the living room floor.

On top of that, officials are proposing higher permit fees on vacation rental homes to raise revenues for increased police patrols as well as city audits of complaints involving the rental properties.

To give a sense of the number of South Lake Tahoe homes that are leased out as vacation rentals, Uhler compared the city to another tourism destination: the Napa Valley wine country. The city of Napa, he said, has 45 houses converted to vacation rentals, compared to South Lake Tahoe’s official count of 1,574, a number some residents say understates the actual figure.

“The saturation in our town is really affecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Uhler said, adding: “It relates to the tension in our neighborhoods.”

The dilemma is that the vacation home rentals, on top of hotels and motels catering to lake and ski resort visitors, are also a huge financial benefit for a city dependent on tourism.

But, in an interview, Uhler said the city wants to do something about the number of people who are packing into vacation rentals, from quaint mountain chalets to alpine castles. He said one regal property available for rent near the Heavenly Mountain Resort includes 13 bedrooms, capacity for 26 adults, plus children, plus four more adults and additional children in the common home area under current rules.

Some neighborhood homes are also rented out for lavish parties, including wedding receptions drawing crowds of revelers and dozens of cars.

City Councilman Austin Sass, a veteran of the tourism industry, said he finds himself sometimes feeling exasperated by visitors’ haphazard parking in his neighborhood. At the recent workshop, he suggested tightening rules on parking, citing his personal experiences of “seeing how many people to my disbelief actually just pull their trucks onto front lawns, chew up the grass and spit dirt out on the roads.”

The remedies suggested by the police chief and city manager include issuing neighborhood parking permits for permanent residents and limiting parking spaces for vacation rentals. The city is also considering a controversial new fee structure that would impose higher permit charges on owner-run rentals – many of them managed by people living hundreds of miles away – than properties run by professional vacation leasing companies.

Currently, the city charges an initial $210 permit fee per vacation rental property and an annual renewal fee of $144. Under the proposed new system, owner-managed properties would pay an annual charge of $250 if they lease units with one to two bedrooms and up to $1,000 a year if they rent out homes with seven bedrooms or more. Professionally managed properties would pay yearly fees ranging between $150 to $750, depending on the number of bedrooms.

Uhler said the increased revenue would pay for a full-time enforcement officer for vacation home rentals, upgrade a city program auditor position from half time to full time and cover police overtime and related duty time of an administrative sergeant.

City Councilwoman JoAnn Conner said she is worried the fee proposal would unfairly penalize owners who rent out vacation homes while still living in the area and keeping close watch on their properties. “I would hate to ding our own residents if they are doing a good job,” she said.

Uhler said most of South Lake Tahoe’s vacation rentals belong to absentee owners. He said police, who recorded more than 150 resident complaints last year about excessive noise, crowding or other problems, get fewer complaints involving professionally managed properties that screen renters and impose strict property use rules.

City resident Peter Evenhuis, 61, said he was “very troubled” by the elevated fee structure for vacation home rentals. Evenhuis, who works in the local hotel industry, noted that hotels pay general occupancy taxes to the city but not the per-room fees that the city is considering for private homeowners.

He also asked council members how the proposed rules might affect his own space for rent – the couch at his lake area apartment.

“I rent my coach out over Airbnb,” Evenhuis said. “Please challenge me to better understand how many party issues and trash issues are going to emanate from my couch?”

Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.

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