Washoe commissioners hope to craft short-term rental regulations ‘with teeth'

Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler speaks at a meeting Monday in Incline Village.

Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler speaks at a meeting Monday in Incline Village.

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Do not expect to see a complete ban on short-term rentals at Lake Tahoe or elsewhere in unincorporated Washoe County in the near future.

That message came from Washoe commissioners Marsha Berkbigler and Bob Lucey Monday night, Jan. 21, during a meeting focused on the county's short-term rental policy.

“We do not want a complete ban,” Berkbigler said, sparking a mixed response from those in attendance.

More than 150 people packed a meeting room at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, on Lake Tahoe's North Shore, to voice their concerns, support and frustration with the rentals — at times those feelings were expressed among audience members in lively exchanges.

Commonly used interchangeably with vacation home rentals (VHRs), short-term rentals are one of the most hotly debated issues around Lake Tahoe.

Douglas County recently created a task force focused on the issue, while the city of South Lake Tahoe is facing a lawsuit following voter approval of a citizen-driven initiative that will largely ban VHRs in residential areas.

Washoe County has been operating under confusing regulations, an issue Berkbigler sought to clarify on Jan. 21.

The development section of Washoe County's code effectively prohibits short-term rentals in residential areas. However, a newer provision elsewhere in the code grants the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) the authority to issue licenses and collect transient occupancy tax.

The Washoe County District Attorney has advised commissioners that the ordinance granting the authority to RSCVA must be recognized because it came after the prohibition on short-term rentals, Berkbigler explained.

Commissioners hope to clarify the regulations and add enforcement elements to address community concerns — which include impacts on parking and public safety resources, reductions in the stock of long-term rentals, noise, trash and fire danger.

Some suggestions for addressing those concerns included: prohibiting short-term rentals in multi-family dwellings; implementing a three-strike rule; establishing new occupancy caps and fire safety requirements; creating a separate enforcement position to alleviate burdens on law enforcement; requiring an on-site host; requiring a business license for all short-term rentals; and potentially limiting the overall number of short-term rental units in the county.

While many in the room raised their hands to show support for short-term rentals with added regulations, some in attendance were outright opposed to allowing the rentals in residential neighborhoods.

“We don't want them,” a man shouted in response to questions about whether the county was obligated to permit short-term rentals in Incline Village and Crystal Bay.

Again, though, the commissioners dismissed the idea of completely banning the rentals.

Even if she personally favored a ban, Berkbigler said she would need two more votes on the five-member county commission in order to pass it.

Tahoe will still be Tahoe, Lucey added, and even is the county bans the rentals people will still rent out their homes and bedrooms illegally, which would deprive the county of potential revenue that could be used for enforcement measures.

With much of the emphasis on the negative impacts on short-term rentals, Sara Schmitz, a recent candidate for Incline Village General Improvement District trustee and the organizer of the Jan. 21 meeting, said she has heard from plenty of people who were concerned about negative economic impacts that would come with a short-term rental ban.

After the roughly 90-minute meeting, Berkbigler and Lucey told the Tribune they felt it was a productive discussion, albeit emotional at times, which Lucey attributed to people's passion for protecting the Tahoe Basin and their way of life.

It is somewhat of a balancing act, Berkbigler added. On one hand many in the community do not want an complete ban, but doing nothing “is not an option.”

“We have to put regulations with teeth in place,” Berkbigler said.

“We're not going to make everyone happy.”

Asked if they were concerned about the short-term rental issue escalating to the level it has in South Lake Tahoe, both Lucey and Berkbigler were confident the issue would not.

“We're getting ahead of it,” Lucey said.

Involving all the various parties and making the process inclusive would prevent the issue from escalating to the level seen on South Shore, Berkbigler said.

As for next steps, the county expects to discuss the ordinance at the commissioners' Feb. 26 meeting in order to obtain some general consensus on elements of the new ordinance.

Assistant County Manager Dave Solaro said it will likely be a six-month process to finalize the new ordinance.

Berkbigler assured the community there would be a future meeting before commissioners consider a first draft of the ordinance.

“We're moving in the right direction,” she said.


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