The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Protect Our Neighborhoods v. City of Palm Springs (Jan. 7, 2022) 73 Cal.App.5th 667 (part. pub.), upheld the City of Palm Springs’ ordinance authorizing short-term rentals in residential zones as consistent with the City’s Zoning Code.
The 2008 Short-Term Rental Ordinance
The City of Palm Springs’ Zoning Code authorizes two uses in a single-family residential (R-1) zone without a permit: (1) a “permanent single-family dwelling”; and (2) uses “customarily incident to the permitted uses when located on the same lot therewith.” All other uses not expressly permitted are prohibited, and the Planning Commission shall not permit commercial uses in such zones.
As a popular vacation destination, the City has expressly allowed for short-term rentals of single-family dwellings since 2008. The corresponding ordinance initially applied to rentals for 28 days or less and limited occupancy based on the number of bedrooms. Rental owners were required to register the property with the City and use “reasonably prudent business practices” to ensure that renters and their guests did not create unreasonable disturbances or engage in disorderly conduct.
The 2016–2017 Ordinance Amendments
In 2016, the City amended the short-term rental ordinance to authorize short-term rentals of single-family residences and duplexes, but not apartments. The City adopted subsequent amendments in 2017, which barred ownership of more than one vacation rental, limited rentals to 36 per year, and added new provisions for “estate homes” (5+ bedrooms) and “homesharing.” The 2017 amendments also included findings that—when taken together—confirmed vacation rentals are permitted in R-1 zones as “ancillary and secondary uses of residential properties.”
Protect Our Neighborhoods, an organization of homeowners opposed to vacation rentals, filed a petition for writ of mandate alleging the 2017 amendments violated the City’s Zoning Code, General Plan, and CEQA. The trial court denied the petition. Protect Our Neighborhoods appealed on the zoning code claims, but did not appeal the trial court’s ruling on the CEQA or General Plan claims.
The Court of Appeal’s Opinion
On appeal, petitioners alleged short-term rentals violated the zoning code because they are “commercial,” not “residential” uses, and improperly change the character of the R-1 Zone. Petitioners also contended that, if the zoning code permits short-term rentals at all, it only does so on the condition that an owner obtain a land use or conditional use permit.
Conflict With the Zoning Code
Effect of a Conflict
The Court of Appeal rejected petitioners’ contention that the ordinance conflicted with the zoning code. Petitioners treated the code as some kind of “higher law” that invalidated any subsequent conflicting law, even though the zoning code and ordinance are “coequal parts of the Municipal Code.” The court thus reasoned that, to the extent they conflicted with one another, “the most recently enacted statute expressed the will of the Legislature.” Therefore, even if the ordinance and zoning code could not be reconciled, the ordinance would remain valid because the City’s findings evinced its intent to repeal any inconsistent provision of the zoning code.
Existence of a Conflict
The court also rejected petitioners’ claim that vacation rentals constituted “commercial uses” that were barred in R-1 residential zones. The court noted that R-1 zones expressly permit any use that is “customarily incident to” the use of a “permanent single-family dwelling.” A “dwelling” includes “a building or portion thereof designed exclusively for residential occupancy…” Here, the ordinance plainly states that “vacation rentals are an ‘ancillary and secondary use of residential property…’” Petitioners failed to establish that this interpretation was erroneous.
Petitioners also failed to establish how short-term vacation rentals fell within the definition of a “commercial use.” The zoning code meaningfully distinguishes between commercial stays, and the City could reasonably conclude that the short-term rental of a single-family dwelling has different impacts than the short-term rental of a 20, 50, or 100-unit motel. That vacation rentals will impermissibly change the character of the R-1 zone is equally unavailing. Petitioners mistakenly cited to the “business regulations” provision of the code’s “home occupations” chapter, which does not apply to short-term rentals. Nevertheless, even if rentals did affect nearby single-family residents, allowing them was a legislative judgment left up to the City.
The Ordinance’s Findings
Petitioners claimed the ordinance’s supportive findings were internally inconsistent because they impliedly permitted an owner to acquire property and exclusively use it as a short-term rental without ever living in it. The court observed that a property can be “residential,” even if it is vacant. The code defines “dwelling” based on whether the building is designed exclusively for residential occupancy, not whether the building is actually occupied. The building is then limited to use as a single-family residence or uses customarily incident thereto, such as vacation rentals.
Need for a Discretionary Permit
Finally, petitioners argued short-term rentals in R-1 zones required issuance of a discretionary permit. Though the zoning code only requires permits for large day cares, model homes, temporary onsite trailers in conjunction with sale of subdivision lots, accessory apartments, churches, schools, and golf courses in R-1 zones, petitioners argued that vacation rentals have greater impacts than those uses. The court rejected this by observing that the zoning code does not require permits for “similar uses” with “similar impacts.” Rather, uses customarily incident to uses as a single-family dwelling—i.e., vacation rentals—are allowed without a permit.
– Bridget McDonald