Councilwoman Meagan Harmon
Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said Tuesday that Santa Barbara has a housing crisis and backed an emergency short-term vacation rental ordinance change.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday night to redefine vacation rentals as hotels in areas where hotels are already allowed. 

The move would require homeowners to register their short-term vacation rentals as hotels, which allows the city to collect hotel bed taxes. 

City Attorney Ariel Calonne pushed the urgency ordinance, which he said was already the current law, but there was ambiguity in the city’s municipal code. 

The unusual move comes amid existing vacation rental lawsuits against the city over short-term vacation rentals. The change was designed to clarify the city’s definition of short-term vacation rentals ahead of two vacation rental lawsuits where they are defendants against property owners who have short-term vacation rentals in the coastal zone. 

Calonne said the change was simply to remove ambiguity in the municipal code to make sure it was clear that a single-family home being rented out as a short-term rental should be considered a hotel.

“Your purpose here is to maintain the status quo,” Calonne said. “You are trying to maintain things exactly how they are today.”

But Jarrett Gorin, principal at Vanguard Planning, said the city was doing an end-run around the city’s public review process. 

“The city has had short-term vacation rentals for years,” Gorin said. “Now we have an emergency? The city charter doesn’t establish procrastination as a basis to adopt an emergency ordinance.”

He said the city was setting “a dangerous precedent.”

“I really think this is beyond the pale,” Gorin said. 

Assistant City Attorney Dan Hentschke acknowledged that the effort to clarify the municipal code was tied to lawsuits. 

“Had there not been litigation, had there not been people saying your ordinance doesn’t say what you think it says, which are all changed circumstances, we wouldn’t have this situation that we are confronted with now,” Hentschke said.

Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said the city’s housing crisis has created the need for an emergency ordinance. Short-term vacation rental critics say that vacation rentals in residential zones impact the availability of affordable housing in the community. 

“The emergency piece, I really want to drive home, that we do have broad discretion to act for the health, welfare and safety of our residents,” Harmon said. “We are in a position to really make effective moves to remedy this situation.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.