Washoe County commissioners favor regulating short-term rentals

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

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

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Washoe County commissioners kicked off their discussion on how to manage short-term rentals last month by making one thing clear: there will be no ban on the rentals in unincorporated parts of the county.

"I don't want to see any kind of ban in this county with regard to short-term rentals," Commissioner Bob Lucey said during a Feb. 26 meeting.

Commissioners Marsha Berkbigler, whose district includes Incline Village and Crystal Bay, and Vaughn Hartung expressed their support for sensible policy, with Hartung cautioning that "less is more" when it comes to crafting regulations.

The discussion, as Lucey explained, was an opening step in providing the framework for future regulations regarding short-term rentals, also referred to as vacation home rentals or VHRs.

In doing so, commissioners waded into a controversial topic debated in communities across the country — from Maine, where state legislators are considering banning local communities from enacting VHR bans, to Louisiana, where officials in Jefferson Parish recently voted to ban short-term rentals.

Closer to home, the short-term rental issue in South Lake Tahoe fueled a 2018 citizen-driven ballot initiative barring the rentals in residential neighborhoods, minus a 30-day exception for full-time residents each year. The initiative passed by a 58-vote margin and is currently being litigated in El Dorado Superior Court.

Commissioners repeated their desire to avoid the situation in South Lake Tahoe, which Berkbigler described as a "legal disaster."

And while Commissioner Kitty Jung suggested Washoe County wait for an outcome in the South Lake Tahoe case, Assistant District Attorney Paul Lipparelli informed commissioners that prolonged inaction on their part would likely lead to litigation.

"In my view, this is going to be a lawsuit eventually if you don't set the policy direction," he said.

First and foremost on Feb. 26, county staff hoped to gain consensus from commissioners regarding their interpretation of current policy.

The need for clarification stems from two parts of county code perceived to be in conflict. County officials said the development section of the code effectively prohibits short-term rentals in residential areas, while a newer provision elsewhere in the code grants the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA) the authority to collect tax from short-term rentals. Because the second provision is newer, it supersedes the first.

Disagreement with staff's interpretation by the commissioners could translate to a de facto prohibition of short-term rentals in unincorporated Washoe County, which as some people noted could pose a slew of problems, especially regarding revenue for those entities that receive transient occupancy tax dollars.

While the majority of the short-term rentals are located at the lake, there are some in other unincorporated areas of Washoe County, Lucey said.

And, Berkbigler added, bans on short-term rentals are not effective at reducing the impacts associated with the rentals.

"Bans don't work," stated Berkbigler, who said they either end in litigation or fuel an illegal black market.

The four commissioners present for the discussion — Commissioner Jeanne Herman was absent — were unanimous in directing staff to begin moving forward with crafting regulations to address concerns expressed by residents.

Although their direction did not mention specific impacts or enforcement measures, there appeared to be general consensus supporting escalating penalties for repeat offenders.

Commissioners also called for various stakeholders, including public safety personnel, real estate agents and others, to be included in the process. And both Berkbigler and Lucey repeated promises made at a January meeting in Incline Village to involve the public in the process.

Although a timetable was not discussed at the Feb. 26 meeting, county officials previously said any new regulations would likely take months to draft and ultimately approve.

While not expressing explicit urgency, Berkbigler said there was a reason the county should not wait to address the issue: the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Specifically the commissioner, who serves as the Washoe County representative on the TRPA governing board, pointed to pressure expressed by residents a public meeting urging the agency to enact basin-wide regulations for short-term rentals.

It is always a concern, Berkbigler said, when local jurisdictions abdicate responsibility and leave an issue in the hands of TRPA.


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