Posted by: Patricia Salkin | March 23, 2019

CA Appeals Court Dismisses Lawsuit Seeking to Enjoin Short Term Vacation Rentals

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

A California appellate court ruled in March that a lawsuit challenging the short term vacation rental (STVR) regulations in the City of San Buenaventura was properly dismissed. Although the court disagreed with the city’s separation of powers argument, it found that the STVR ordinance was consistent with the city’s zoning regulations and that there was no merit to the contention that the STVRs were impermissible “hotels.”

The Whitmans lived in the Residential Single Family Beach Zone in the City of San Buenaventura and had made various noise complaints about STVRs over the years, but to no avail. Frustrated with this response, they decided to sue the city, arguing that STVRs were essentially hotels, which were not a permitted use. The city moved for summary judgment on the basis that STVRs were indeed a permitted use, and the trial court ruled in the city’s favor.

In the first point raised on appeal, the court agreed with the Whitmans that separation of powers principles did not prevent it from reviewing the city’s STVR regulations. While separation of powers principles prohibited the court from ordering the city to enact specific regulations, the court explained that it had every authority to enjoin the city from enforcing its regulations in a manner prohibited by law. And in this case, the Whitmans merely contended that city’s issuance of STVR permits violated the zoning ordinance; they did not request that the city be directed to enforce its STVR regulations in any particular manner. Accordingly, the court found that the question of whether STVRs were permitted in the Residential Single Family Beach Zone was a proper matter for judicial review that would not unduly impinge on the city’s legislative or discretionary powers.

The court also distinguished the Whitmans’ claims from two cases that found separation of powers violations, Riggs v. City of Oxnard 154 Cal.App.3d 526, 201 Cal. Rptr. 291 (1984) and Blankenship v. Michalski 155 Cal.App.2d 672, 318 P.2d 727 (1957. In Riggs, the plaintiff asked the court to impose specific, discretionary penalties on a competing business that had allegedly violated the zoning ordinances, while the Whitmans did not seek a specific penalty but rather only sought to enjoin the city from issuing STVR permits in a manner that violated the ordinance. The court noted that the city was required to enforce its STVR regulations in compliance with the ordinance, and as the Riggs decision stated, “a court can order a city to ‘act[] within the limits of [its] power and discretion.'” The plaintiff in the Blankenship case also sought to compel specific action by the city, requesting in particular that the city commence abatement proceedings for violations of the zoning ordinance. The Whitmans, in contrast, did not seek to force the city to undertake any particular action, but merely to comply with its own zoning regulations. “That compliance is mandatory in the first instance,” the court explained, and “[a] court can thus compel it.”

Moving to the merits, the court disagreed with the Whitmans’ argument that the city was prohibited from issuing STVR permits in the Residential Single Family Beach Zone. The ordinance, it found, “plainly allows for such uses,” and the trial court did not error in so holding. Looking first to the text of the zoning and the STVR ordinance, the court concluded that the plain meaning of the regulations allowed the city to issue STVR permits in the Residential Single Family Beach Zone. The definitions also clearly distinguished STVRs from hotels, which were prohibited uses. As the court explained: “The STVR ordinance allows ‘residential dwelling unit[s]’ to be used as STVR’s if the owners of the units comply with certain permitting requirements and pay required fees. The ordinance defines an ‘STVR’ as ‘a “dwelling unit” other than a dwelling unit located in a “hotel” . . . that is rented to a tenant for a period of not more than 30 consecutive days.’ A ‘dwelling unit’ is ‘[a]ny building or portion thereof which contains living facilities including all of the following: provisions for sleeping, a kitchen, and sanitation for not more than one family.’ In contrast, a ‘hotel’ is a ‘building containing six or more rooms occupied as a temporary abiding place for persons who, for compensation, are lodged with or without meals.'”

The court also noted that the “family” requirement in the ordinance’s single-family zoning designation meant that single-family residences, by their definition, were dwelling units other than hotels, and thus STVR permits for single-family residences were also distinguishable from hotel uses. The Whitmans nevertheless continued to argue that STVRs were more similar to “lodging services” than to single-family residences, but court found that this claim “ignores the definitions set forth in the zoning and STVR ordinances.” The zoning ordinance defined two types of lodging services, “hotels and motels” and “bed and breakfast inns,” and unlike the requirements for STVRs, the court noted that the definitions for these uses did not include kitchens or sanitation services.

In a final note, the court explained that its determination was not changed by the fact that STVRs qualified as “businesses” under the city’s licensing and tax regulations. Properties offered as long-term rentals also qualified as businesses, the court noted, but their income-generating potential did not transform them from residential uses into “lodging services,” as the Whitmans would have contended. “What matters is how the property is used, not whether it is rented,” the court concluded.
Whitman v. City of San Buenaventura, 2019 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1918, 2019 WL 1292274 (3/21/19).

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