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RECAP: CITY COUNCIL, NOVEMBER 14, 2023
Council refers STR ordinance back to Planning, requests density options
“This might be the first secular invocation the city’s ever seen,” Karalee Hargrove began as her brief opening remarks kicked off the City Council meeting. “I am here representing the members of our community who align with free thinkers, atheists, agnostics and humanists.” She emphasized empathy, compassion, leadership, focus, and passion and that “the problems we face did not come down from the heavens but from bad decisions. Good human decisions can change them.”
Recreation Division Manager Kary Minatrea then introduced two new city employees, Curtis McCoy, and George Pena, who both expressed a passion for working in youth sports. Council member Steve Bilderain joked that the two are already known affectionately as “Justin Bieber” and “Bad Bunny” around the basketball court.
Council member Octavious Scott removed item 7 from the Consent Calendar to give an opportunity for Minatrea to explain the need for resurfacing of the basketball courts at Luckie Park. She noted that the community was interested in having one of the courts converted to tennis and pickleball courts. Because the contract was just awarded, Minatrea did not give dates when this work would be completed. Awarding of the contract to Courtmaster Sports was approved 4-0 (Council member Joel Klink was absent).
9. DCA23-000002 - Nonconforming Buildings and Uses. As the City continues to examine its development code and bring it in line with state and federal requirements, Keith Gardner, the Community Development Director, discussed the code for nonconforming structures.
The code element limits nonconforming uses and regulates whether they can be enlarged, occupied after they have been abandoned, or altered or restored if they have been damaged or destroyed.
Council agreed that proposed changes clarified the regulations and voted 4-0 to approve them.
10. DCA23-000007 - Vacation Home Rentals (also called Short-Term Rentals or STRs).
Following numerous comments on the City's STR ordinance, rather than approve a fresh version, tonight the Council decided instead to kick multiple potential changes back to the Planning Commission.
Community Development Director Keith Gardner introduced this item, noting that the Planning Commission discussed the various changes the City Council had suggested, but for most of them "they determined that the existing regulations were sufficient."
Gardner highlighted the fact that recent demand for STR permits in Twentynine Palms has been declining, not rising. The ordinance caps the Citywide number of STR permits at 500, but this figure was never hit—the high water mark of 484 active permits was reached back in June, whereas now, five months later, that number has dropped to 455. During Public Comment Planning commissioner Jim Krushat, who identified himself as an STR owner, echoed Mr. Gardner’s reports, saying that “we’ve reached equilibrium… and market forces will take care of the density question.”
Mayor McArthur Wright read comments from Las Vegas physician, STR and major 29 Palms landowner George Mulopulos encouraging the City to be less antagonistic to new businesses; STR owner Heather Vescent who suggested that some neighborhoods are oversaturated with vacation rentals and that purpose-built rentals should be treated as commercial constructions and not allowed in neighborhoods; Cindy Bernard, who wrote about planning commissioners favoring property owners over residents and that the City needs a consolidated approach to turning rural living zones over to purpose built STRs, commercial camping and resorts; and Deborah Shea who commented that Planning Commissioners have not been sensitive to residents’ concerns that STR guests do not respect the rights of people who live in our neighborhoods.
Here's a rundown of the various STR ordinance topics that Council discussed, including a brief review of the community comments on each item.
Number of licenses per permittee. Earlier this year the Council discussed reducing the maximum number of STR permits per entity from its current number of five, to two or three, while grandfathering in existing owners, but referred this question to Planning. The recommendation from Planning was to keep this at five.
Tonight Council member Daniel Mintz said, "I think three is a good number," followed by agreement from Mayor Wright, who said, "I just think five is too many because we can have corporations come in, so three is a good number for me."
Heather Vescent, Cindy Bernard, and John Talley-Jones commented in favor of this reduction, while STR manager Susan Peplow and STR owner Jonathan Hume commented against any change.
Reduction in insurance requirements. Earlier this year the Council had already agreed they wanted to see this change, but they referred it to Planning for incorporation into the ordinance revision. Tonight all four Council members again expressed agreement with reducing insurance requirements. No commenter mentioned it.
Single family residences built for vacation home rental. Earlier in 2023, with little apparent consensus, the Council referred this issue to Planning, who in turn discussed it but offered no recommendation.
While Bilderain was a firm “no” to purpose built STRs, Mintz displayed little appetite for directly curbing an owner's use of their property, opining "I'm okay with somebody building a building then deciding how they're going to use it. That's just me." Council member Scott then suggested, "If we're not able to prevent them from being purpose-built VHRs, then maybe we should put in place requirements on the aesthetics of the building so that it has a residential character, and it doesn't look out of place." With that the Council referred this hot potato back to Planning.
Heather Vescent, Cindy Bernard, Kat Talley-Jones, and John Talley-Jones commented in favor of limiting STR use of new builds, Jonathan Hume commented against it, and Eric Menendez spoke in favor of aesthetic standards for new residential construction.
National Park buffer zone. The Joshua Tree National Park Buffer Overlay is an area bordering JTNP defined in the Twentynine Palms 2012 General Plan. Its intent is to "protect, enhance and expand the scenic vistas and resources adjacent to the National Park by discouraging development that could potentially impact these resources" and to "strongly discourage intensification of existing allowable development densities [and establish] development standards with the goal of preserving the scenic vistas and resources along the National Park."
Previously this year the Council referred to Planning the question of whether homes falling within the National Park buffer zone should be treated any differently with respect to STR permitting. The Planning Commission concluded that the buffer zone wasn't relevant to STRs, so Planning made no recommendation about it to Council.
Per Keith Gardner, "The Commission's view was that the National Park buffer zone doesn't apply to vacation rentals," and "The thought process was the policy of the National Park buffer zone has to do with changing the zone, so [the City can't alter lot density] from a five-acre zone to a two-acre zone, because that's an increase in the density around the Park."
Tonight with little discussion except Scott seeming to say he didn't believe STR permits should be granted to structures within the buffer zone, the Council referred this topic back to the Planning Commission. Although multiple commenters opposed STRs, none mentioned the buffer zone.
Density per neighborhood. Earlier this year the Council referred to Planning the idea of somehow limiting STR density, either Citywide or by neighborhood. Planning considered the idea but returned no recommendation.
Tonight, after some debate among Council about various approaches to regulate density, the Council once again kicked the matter back to Planning, but this time with specific direction to Planning to return options to Council including the pros and cons of each density regulation scheme.
Said Scott, "I like what some community members said, it's as simple as no lots should touch each other. I think that's an easy way to handle that situation, a vacation rental, you can't apply for one, if you're touching another parcel. On Gorgonio alone there are four VHRs in a row each of them touching one another."
Heather Vescent, Cindy Bernard, John Talley-Jones, and Heidi Heard commented in favor of regulating STR density and no one commented specifically against it.
Limit number of VHRs per parcel. This item came from Community Development Department staff rather than being suggested by City Council. The current ordinance doesn't limit the number of STR permits per parcel, so staff suggested adding a limit of either one or two permits (to accommodate ADUs) per parcel. Council agreed that allowing STR owners either one or two permits per parcel, at the owner's discretion, was fine.
Conditions of approval. This item likewise came from Community Development Department staff. This ordinance change would enable City staff, if they discovered unpermitted additions or other unpermitted work, to fine the owner and/or deny STR permit renewal. It also added a new requirement for paved parking spaces. Earlier, commenters Peplow and Hume objected to the paved parking space requirement, arguing that it made no sense for rural properties on dirt roads. During discussion Mintz echoed these concerns and Gardner replied that staff would revisit the requirement that the spaces be paved.
Response times for nuisance complaints. This item arose from concerns about complaint response times raised by Council. Gardner advised that Community Development is reluctant to write any changes concerning response time into the ordinance itself, but he's working to make improvements including improved communication back to complainants. Mintz requested recent trend data on complaints and Gardner said he'd provide it. Commenter Deborah Shea had written to criticize how the City handles STR complaints.
Storage of Recreational Vehicles. Again an item from staff. The recommendation from Planning on this item was that RVs should be allowed on STR properties as long as any RV rental or occupancy was forbidden. Council agreed.
Issuance of additional permit such as film or TUP (Temporary Use Permit). Also from staff. Planning's recommendation was that if an STR owner wants to allow film production or host a large event such as a wedding, the owner should be able to do so if they obtain the necessary additional permit. Council agreed.
Good Neighbor class. From staff. Planning recommended that owners and property managers be required to take the City's Good Neighbor class yearly. This is a 90-minute class with attendance done remotely via video. Mintz and Wright opined that owners should have to take the class when they first get an STR permit, then going forward retake it again only if they receive a City citation. Gardner said he'd revise the draft ordinance language accordingly. Many local STR owners have spoken up that yearly classes are onerous.
11. DCA23-000012 - Western Joshua Trees. The City Council agreed with the Community Development Director and direction from the Planning Committee, which suggested on September 19 to defer to the State to enforce regulations about removing, relocating, or trimming Western Joshua Trees in Twentynine Palms.
12. DCA23-000015 - Downtown Specific (DTSP) Land Use Tables. In its September 19 meeting, the Planning Commission endorsed City staff’s recommendations of clarifications, consolidations, and updates to allowable land uses table in Article 2 in the City’s development code. The City’s planning staff proposes to implement the same list of allowable uses for zones in the Downtown Specific Plan. The City Council voted 4-0 to accept these recommendations.
13. City Clerk Compensation. The council agreed to a standard five percent longevity increase to City Clerk Cindy Villescas. Because she will have to fill in at times for Interim City Manager Larry Bowden, whose hours are limited, another five percent was added that would expire when a full-time city manager is hired. In his report, Mr. Bowden suggested that a new manager might be on board by April 2024.
14. Public Arts Advisory Committee (PAAC) Appointment. Anna Stump, PAAC Chair, and Kate Short, PAAC Vice Chair, introduced Paul Razo as their nomination for a new PAAC member. Razo and his partner operate Mojave Moon Apothecary in Twentynine Palms, and Razo is also a graphic designer—he mentioned that he had designed the I Fall to Pizzas logo and sticker. Ms. Stump also announced that PAAC member Ryan Heffington had resigned and that a search for a new member would begin shortly.
Thomas Elkins, Senior Patrol Leader of Boy Scout Troop 229, spoke about the City’s missed opportunity to reach local youth in continuing to defer forming a youth advisory council. Izzy Hargrove also encouraged the City Council to form a youth committee, which would give students an opportunity to develop professionalism and an investment in the community. She also encouraged the creation of banners that honor the community’s service members.
Susie Dick, of the Yucca Valley stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, invited Twentynine Palms residents to the church’s nativity celebration on December 16. Jim Krushat circled back to the question of developing STRs in the National Park Buffer Zone. Susan Peplow encouraged the development of guidelines for letters submitted for comments so that they are not longer than comments the public can give in person.
CITY MANAGER’S REPORT
Larry Bowden, the interim City Manager, reported that he’s getting up to speed and that recruitment for a new city manager goes out next week. “If we get applicants,” Bowden said, “which I think we will, you'll set interviews and you'll interview them. If you find someone that you like, then you can offer him a job. If we don't find it, if you don't find anyone you like, we can go national.”
We would like to request that when speaking of a future city manager, staff should refrain from calling this person “him.” We hope qualified women will apply for this position too. See our October 14 perspective, Who Should We Hire?, calling for candidate who believes in transparency and who listens to community voices.
Desert Trumpet writer Kat Talley-Jones is a member of the Public Arts Advisory Committee, which is a part of the City of Twentynine Palms.
Public commenters Cindy Bernard, Heidi Heard, Jonathan Hume and Kat-Talley Jones also write for The Desert Trumpet
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