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With the City Council’s blessing, Napans are closer to being able to offer their bedrooms online to travelers, openly and legally.

A change in the vacation rental ordinance that would legalize the in-house innkeeping popularized by Airbnb and other sharing website cleared the first of two required votes Tuesday night on a 3-1 vote (with 1 recused). Napa could begin taking applications for up to 60 hosting permits with a second council approval in November, followed by a 30-day waiting period before the law takes effect.

The decision brought to the edge of fulfillment the efforts of a vocal collection of Napa residents who have packed City Hall since January to implore officials to let in-home hosts work in the open, and again nearly filled the council chamber Tuesday.

Peals of applause followed many of the testimonials from those who credited home sharing with linking them with new friends from around the country or world – or simply providing valuable help with living expenses.

Without the ability to open his childhood home to paying tourists, “there is a good chance I will no longer be able to consider my house on Brown Street as my home for the first time in my life,” Napa native Linden Fowler told the council.

The ordinance does not add to the existing 41 permits to rent entire homes to vacationers with the owner absent, but does give their holders the ability to transfer those licenses to those who buy their homes.

Mayor Jill Techel, Vice Mayor Scott Sedgley and Councilman Peter Mott cast the “yes” votes for the hosted accommodation law.

Councilwoman Mary Luros dissented, arguing that 60 licenses are far too few to meet tourist demand. Councilwoman Juliana Inman, who owns a vacation rental home, recused herself from the discussion and vote.

The ordinance change would let those receiving a hosted accommodation permit to open up to two bedrooms to paying visitors for stays of 30 days or fewer. Hosts would be required to live on the premises, sleep at their homes while guests are present, and be available for customer service in less than an hour.

City staff would accept or reject applications to provide hosting lodging, and notify neighbors living within 500 feet of the applicant. Permit holders would collect the same room tax as hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, submit to annual reviews for safety and neighbor relations, and be required to rent rooms for at least 10 nights a year to have their licenses renewed.

To discourage unlicensed home sharing, the Napa ordinance would raise fines for rental violations from $100 to $500 on the first infraction. Those offering vacation rentals also would have to include the city permit number in any online listings.

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An eleventh-hour change to the ordinance, added earlier Tuesday, would forbid hosts to hold weddings, auctions or “commercial functions” in their houses while also hosting tourists, an apparent bid to keep as much residential flavor in a home’s neighborhood as possible.

While a majority of the more than 60 audience members spoke up for online home sharing, many pushed for an even lighter touch on the practice – and more permits to encourage other hosts to work aboveboard.

Furthermore, the city’s proposal to hold a lottery for hosting rights threatens to cut out residents who have campaigned hardest for the new law, said Grania Lindberg, an advocate for local supporters of the practice.

“If they end up not getting a permit because they don’t happen to get a high number in the lottery, I know they’re going to be very bitter,” she said, urging Napa to take applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

Amid the show of home-sharing enthusiasm, some residents urged Napa to take seriously any noise, traffic or disturbance complaints from those living near hosts – whether offering a single room or an entire house.

“I have concerns that my rights as a property owner to use my property in a residential neighborhood as a resident – to raise my family, retire there in my old age and enjoy my property – not be trumped by somebody’s business,” said Jennifer Tichy, a Browns Valley resident for 16 years.

“We’re asking you to please really look at these applications that come in,” Tim Gavin told council members as he recalled his Browns Valley neighbors’ two-year battle with a homeowner in a vacation rental dispute. “… We want to be in front of it this time. We don’t want to have an issue and have to rally the neighborhood, and have to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours fighting for why we moved here in the first place.”

As council members wrestled with how to oversee vacation rentals, Mott admitted the march of the Internet has left Napa scrambling to redefine where residential life ends and commerce begins.

“This whole concept didn’t even exist when we came out with our last general plan,” he said. “There was no Airbnb then; that’s how quick this has all happened. It puts us in this tricky situation where normally, you just do not put businesses in residential areas – if the general plan says you don’t, you don’t.”

Mott ultimately threw his support behind licensing in-house hosts, but not before reminding future permit holders of their responsibilities.

“With opportunity comes obligation,” he said. “And that’s the obligation of enhancing this industry, of being able to talk to other residents and say, ‘We’re not just about tourists, we’re about our community.’”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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