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The Napa County Grand Jury wants Napa County and the city of Napa to do more to crack down on illegal short-term vacation rentals.

Unincorporated Napa County has an estimated 450 illegal short-term vacation rentals, with the number not known for the city. That means less housing for residents and workers, less money for hotels and less hotel tax money for government, the 2018-19 grand jury found.

“While officials do what they can to stem the tide of non-permitted rentals, they acknowledge that property owners are one step ahead of enforcement teams,” the grand jury report stated.

For example, some owners advertise their properties only during nights and on weekends. They know that county and city enforcement officers usually work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, the report said.

Both the county and city can do more, the grand jury concluded. Among other things, it recommended they consider alternative work weeks for new code enforcement officers to allow for evening and weekend coverage.

Deputy County Executive Officer Molly Rattigan said the county’s policy is not to issue statements on grand jury reports prior to the official response.

City of Napa spokeswoman Jaina French couldn’t be reached for a comment on Monday.

Short-term vacation rentals are houses rented for less than 30 days.

That’s illegal in the unincorporated county overseen by Napa County government. Changing the ban would require a vote of the people under Measure P, the land-use law designed to protect agriculture and open space.

Meanwhile, the city of Napa offers a limited number of permits for short-term rentals – 60 for rentals with the owner on the premises and 41 for rentals with the owner absent.

The grand jury started its investigation after receiving a complaint from a resident, who was not identified in the report. The person said a neighbor was continually renting out a property for weddings and other private events on a short-term basis.

Napa County code enforcement investigated, but the owner retained a lawyer and fought the county, the person told the grand jury. For example, the owner claimed that weddings involved members of the extended family or that the renters had signed legal, leases of 30 days or more.

“Even though the original complainant provided evidence that disputed these claims, the county did not pursue the alleged violations any further, to the complainant’s – and the jury’s – dismay,” the report said.

But the grand jury didn’t want to investigate a single incident, so it looked at the short-term vacation rental situation overall in the unincorporated county, using the city of Napa for comparison.

Napa County has six code enforcement officers, managers and supervisors to oversee 8,000 properties spread out over more than 750 square miles. The 18-square-mile city of Napa has three officers.

Both the county and city rely largely on complaints to learn about possible code violations, the grand jury report said. Officials from both jurisdictions told the jury they are understaffed.

Both emphasize compliance over punishment and work with property owners to try to resolve code violations, the report stated.

“Officials realize this may not sit well with complaining neighbors, who would prefer a faster resolution,” the grand jury report said. “However, officials stress that taking property owners to court can be a far lengthier and more expensive process and there is no guarantee of winning every case.”

Still, the report described times when both jurisdictions took action.

The city of Napa over two years repeatedly fined a Browns Valley homeowner because of an alleged, illegal short-term vacation rental for a total of $204,000. The owner was jailed and sold the house, with the city collecting $25,000, the report said.

Napa County last year sued the operator of an alleged, illegal short-term vacation rental in a Tuscany-style house near St. Helena. In court papers, defendants Calistoga Wine LLC and Linda Fotsch denied the charges. The matter has yet to be resolved.

A county official said the county is unwilling to prosecute a short-term vacation rental owner without having hard evidence, such as a rental contract. Owners usually don’t send out a contract without first receiving a deposit made with a credit card, the grand jury report stated.

However, county code enforcement officials do not have an anonymous credit card to secure reservations for evidence, the report said. City officials have such a credit card.

The city also has a contract with Host Compliance LLC to track local short-term vacation rentals on websites such as Airbnb and Craigslist. The county does not.

County officials said using Host Compliance would put the county at risk of lawsuits, given companies such as Airbnb have a history of suing jurisdictions that ban short-term vacation rentals. The city believes it doesn’t face the same risk since it allows a fixed number of rentals, the grand jury report said.

County code enforcement officers wear ballistic vests since they sometimes work in remote areas. They carry no weapons, but the county might allow them to carry pepper spray.

The city doesn’t require this level of protective gear, though its code enforcement officers are sometimes joined by police, the report said.

The grand jury ended its report with recommendations. Among them:

- Both the county and city code enforcement divisions by Dec. 31 should evaluate their staffing in light of complaints received and cases investigated.

- Both the county and city by June 30, 2020 should revise their codes, removing outdated codes that are no longer enforced and making it easier for residents to find answers to common code questions.

- The county by June 30, 2020 should explore ways to reduce the number of non-permitted short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated areas.

- The county by June 30, 2020 should arm code compliance officers with pepper spray.

- Both the county and city, when staff turnover allows, should consider a work week for new officers that allows for evening and/or weekend coverage.

The City Council and Board of Supervisors must respond to the grand jury recommendations within 90 days. The report was released on June 24.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.