The Gorilla in the Vacation Rental
A Neighborhood Battles to Regain Peace and Quiet
Saturday, August 30, 2014
How should the people of Goleta define a two-story, four-bedroom “fully furnished house packed with amenities,” as its owner advertises, that sleeps 12, has a five-hole putting green, lighted Ping-Pong table, and basketball court?
The city staff labels such a business a short-term vacation rental. Its owner, Bob Bullemer, has a business license and pays a transient occupancy tax. However, residents next to 830 Serenidad Place, which rents to apparently almost anyone with $800 for a night (or $3,000 for a week), call it a hotel and an ongoing nuisance.
Some think it signals a potential threat to the tranquility of all of Goleta’s neighborhoods because of sections in a draft rental ordinance wending through the city’s legal process.
North of Cathedral Oaks, the parallel cul-de-sacs of Serenidad and Santa Marguerita places are packed cheek by jowl with single-family residences. The longtime owners I talked to uniformly describe their homes as refuges from work and life stresses, and these streets as former bastions of peace, quiet, and neighborliness.
That changed when Bullemer spent months in 2010 remodeling his property, where he said he had lived and worked the prior 18 years. He enlarged the house to around 3,900 square feet, placing the complex of “amenities” behind a curtain of trees, now 25 feet tall, and rented to large parties looking for private weekends. Initially described online as a “Santa Barbara party house,” the phrase was subsequently dropped, neighbors report.
A series of complaints about trash on peoples’ lawns, loud parties, booze, basketball at all hours, bad language, renters’ cars blocking mail delivery and regular traffic, and more began in late 2010, recalled Bullemer. Santa Marguerita resident Bob Freeman said that he and two Serenidad neighbors, Kathy Wolfe and Nadir Dagli, tried in vain to talk with Bullemer before taking their complaints to City Hall in late 2011.
When the city’s response proved unsatisfactory, in 2012 the affected neighbors, who repeatedly called the Sheriff’s Office for violations of their peace and quiet, went to Mayor Ed Easton and the City Council. The resulting changes strengthened the “noise and disturbing the peace” section of the Municipal Code but focused on nighttime amplified noise. In the end, they were ineffective in controlling some renters’ rowdy behavior.
“It is a multifaceted problem,” explains Reverend Brian Cox, a professional mediator (no relation to the author), “a clash of two very different lifestyles. There was disrespect for the neighbors permanently living around them.” Twice, he notes, uninvited, inebriated renters have barged into residents’ homes.
City staff provided a partial picture last May when 830 Serenidad again topped the council’s agenda: Sheriff’s deputies responded to complaints about this rental 23 times between October 26, 2012, and April 5, 2014. During this period, three misdemeanor citations for disturbing the peace were issued as well as six reports written. Since April, deputies have visited more times, including the weekend before this column was written.
The current mayor, Michael Bennett, blamed Bullemer for years of conflict stemming from this one property. “We have hundreds of vacation rentals in the city, and we haven’t heard complaints about any of them” because they screen their renters, he told Bullemer. “It’s despicable.”
Petitions signed by some 40 residents were also presented to council in May. They suggested banning all short-term vacation rentals in residential zones.
The council supported mediation between the neighbors and Bullemer, and the city agreed to pay for a neutral professional mediator. The council, led by Councilmember Jim Farr, also asked staff to again tackle these rentals in the Municipal Code.
Bullemer disputes the legitimacy of “the majority” of complaints. “Typically, the police get a call, go out to the property, and don’t hear any noise,” he said in an interview. “They talk to the renters, and the renters tell me the police were there.”
This complaint procedure is flawed, the rental owner contends, because complaints are logged, but no one judges if they have merit. “It’s one-sided,” he says.
Since 2013 Bullemer has notified renters to keep the outdoor noise down or face forfeiture of their $500 damage deposit if deputies issue a citation. Other warnings are included inside the house and in the welcome letter he sends to renters.
“These measures have been helpful,” he says, adding that there have been “no new citations” since instituting them.
An email to Goleta’s police chief, Sheriff Lt. Butch Arnoldi, to check these assertions went unanswered.
Kathy Wolfe was skeptical of Bullemer’s claims. “He doesn’t take responsibility” for his renters’ actions, she said, adding, “He goes out of his way to not be part of this community.”
At this point, the mediation seems to have hit an impasse. UCSB Engineering Professor Nadir Dagli and Brian Cox represent the neighborhood in the closed talks attended by Bullemer, his attorney, and an outside mediator. Dagli says the city’s draft ordinance “Short-Term Vacation Rentals” is the cause. “It cuts the legs out from under us and seems like the city is taking sides,” he asserts.
Cox calls the draft ordinance “problematic at least” and says it “deals with the symptoms [like noise] and not the problem. The problem is having transient vacation rentals in the middle of R-1 residential [zones].”
The draft ordinance “Short-Term Vacation Rentals,” proposed by the Finance Department and City Attorney’s Office, is the first to address home rentals since Goleta incorporated. It defines a legal short-term vacation rental as not more than 30 consecutive days in a dwelling unit not part of a hotel. This draft does not define “hotel,” which is what Bullemer’s rental is, the neighbors argue.
The proposed limit of two people per rental, plus two per bedroom, would allow 10 renters to legally overnight at 830 Serenidad Place, and that can change. The city permit administrator could expand the number without a public hearing. No appeal process is mentioned.
Other requirements include a bond of $1,500, a “nuisance response” plan to push owners to persuade renters to voluntarily observe neighborhood quiet hours, a ban on “illegal loud parties,” and a time limit for owners’ responses to complaints and for “corrective action” against repeated misconduct.
Sitting alongside the obvious enforcement questions is the gorilla in the rental: Would legalizing all manner of short-term vacation rentals threaten R-1 residential zones? Nadir Dagli thinks so. He told the city’s Ordinance Committee on August 7, “This [proposed] ordinance basically legalizes the current problems we are having [with 830 Serenidad] … [and turns it into] a citywide problem.”
Goleta can do better than to undermine R-1 zoning. Other ways must be found to balance short-term vacation rentals with residential peace and quiet than that in the draft ordinance. The Serenidad neighbors have some thoughtful suggestions. As Dagli says, “We have firsthand experience on how these things go.”
Vic Cox grew up in Santa Barbara and, with his wife, has lived in Goleta for the past 30 years.