“We could’ve been burned out last night. Nobody would have known, and it was windy.” -- Lora Devault, Pine Hills resident
”I think we are going down a slippery slope...and I have a problem telling people what they can do with their properties.” --Katy Morelli, planning group member
By Jessyka Heredia
November 17, 2023 (Julian)—Campers at a short-term rental (STR) property in Julian’s Pine Hills neighborhood started an unauthorized campfire on Sunday and failed to properly extinguish it. The embers sparked a brush fire, causing damage to the owne4r’s property and panic for nearby neighbors.
On Monday, residents spoke out at the Julian Community Planning Group (JCPG) meeting to voice concerns about the growing number of short-term vacation rentals in Julian and disruptions some guests have caused in the community. The most heated concern focused on off-site owners, such as the vacation site in question, which has rentals both inside a home and outside at tent camping sites. Some vacation rental owners also spoke up in defense of property rights for responsible STR owners.
Julian resident Tracey Allen swiftly alerted her neighbors to the incident in a Facebook post on Sunday in the private Julian Connection group. She wrote, “Luckily, a neighbor called it in; Cal Fire came and extinguished the flames which were about 10-12 feet when they arrived. (I spoke with them directly.) They said if no one had noticed it as soon as they did, homes would have been gone by morning, given the winds we had today. There are homes within 100 feet of where this fire started.”
ECM reached out to CalFire to get a better understanding of the damage to the property, and what resources it took to extinguish the flames that were reported by neighbors. CalFire has not responded yet, however a Pulse Point screenshot confirms that CalFire responded to an illegal fire at Pine Hills Road and Blue Jay Drive. The call came in at 3:20 p.m. and the incident was closed at 4:51 p.m., approximately an hour and a half later.
Board member Katy Moretti (phoro, left) told her colleagues that the draft letter needed changes. For instance, it asks how many STR’s are located in Julian. But Moretti said the County Assessor’s office told her they don’t know the number. “They only keep track of principal residences through the homeowner’s exemption.” Moretti stated that “There is no database per the assessor’s office.”
Another question the group was seeking is have the STR owners been paying their Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). On this point, Moretti said county staff advised her, “Presently there are 86 rentals all registered as STRs, which include hotels, campgrounds, etc.”
All 86 owners are currently paying the TOT. Moretti said she then requested a list of the payers and was told that the staff member did not receive authority from her manager and so the group is still waiting for access to the information.
“The amount of TOT tax collected in Julian between 2021 and 2022 to 2023 was $1,317,105.45 of which Julian community groups got about $490,000,” Moretti said. Recipients included the Julian Chamber of Commerce, Volcan Mountain Foundation, Julian Art Guild, Julian Historical Society, Julian Women’s Club, Ilan Lael Foundation (Hubble house),and more. Moretti stated that the STRs do a lot to bring revenues into Julian,”doing good things for communities as well.”
Moretti researched websites that list vacation rentals in the area and found significantly more than are registered with the County. “Why doesn’t the county have a process with VRBO and Airbnb in their agreements to collect those taxes when the reservation is made?” she asked.
According to Moretti, on AirBnB’s website she found 324 vacation rentals listed for Juilan, while VRBO showed 109 local rentals available. However, these can include multiple rooms for rent at a single residence. Moretti said she narrowed her search to full home rentals and on VRBO 44 were available under the search term Julian, but were in Ramona.
Moretti looked at other communiities. She found that “Borrego had 305 under AirBnB and 28 under VRBO. Alpine 1,000 under AirBnB and 119 under VRBO. Warner Springs 425 Airbnb and 149 under VRBO. You have discrepancies between both websites, and I think its difficult to find an actual accurate amount of what is actually a house, what is a room.”
Board member Eric Jones suggested that it appears some STRs may not be paying taxes, as there are more on listings than the county says are paying taxes. Jones suggested they ask County staff to do the research instead of the planning group, comparing marketplace listings to the tax rolls.
Board member Barbara Nigra voiced her view that the STR situation is “out of control”, adding, “We don’t have many long-term rentals for residents to live in, because so many of these houses have been turned into AirBnB’s by people who just invested in a house and don’t live here.”
Board member Ron Smith (photo, right) thanked Moretti for her research, noting, “ It’s a very complicated issue. We are just really scratching the surface right now.” Smith pushed for a fair and balanced approach between protecting residents and the ability of STR owners to still bring in tourism.
Board member Rebecca Morales agreed with Jones. “I’m not sure that we should be doing the county’s job. They’re the ones who have access to all the data.” The planning gorup shouldn’t do the analysis, in her view, but should “be informing the public in the broadest way possible as to what is going and then come up with policy recommendations.”
A motion was made by Board member Harry Seifert to rewrite the letter to the county. The board unanimously voted against sending it as is, The Board also voted unanimously to have Moretti rewrite the letter.
The residents in attendance were finally able to have their voices heard by the board in regards to the fire a day earlier at the STR in Pine HIlls.
From the audience, John Lesley (photo, left) shared that he owns a few rentals in Julian. Lesley said, “I love Julian. I have been here since 2010. I love the people. I’m very aware there are issues. I keep very good relations with my neighbors and they have my personal phone number. I have cameras on my property for any problems.”
Lesley said he has only had two incidences in 13 years. He suggested that residents “ communicate with our neighbors better, “ to resolve problems. Lesley explained t that if he was to turn his STR into a long-term rental, he would not be able to cover the costs of his mortgage, property insurance and fire insurance. “Who could afford that property?” he asked. “It’s easy to say short term rentals are getting rid of all the people that want to rent long term but, in this market, people can’t afford to rent.” He added that high rents is why homelessness is so high across the region.
Kisha Green, a lifelong local and property owner and vacation rental manager, shared her experience and what she thinks the community should be asking. “How can STR’s continue to benefit our community but also be positive for the long term renter. Where is that happy medium?” Green expressed that the TOT “can benefit the community a lot. The county should build a relationship with Airbnb. Airbnb has relationships with other counties.” Green suggested that if the tax was collected by the app at checkout it would help weed out the ones that are not paying TOT.
Anthony Napoli stated that the city of San Diego has a four-tier system for STRs, but thinks trying to get the County to do this is like “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The community needs to police our own”. He talked about another STR that has had three or four citations from Cal Fire yet it hasn’t
been shut down. “Are you kidding me?” he said. Napoli told ECM that prices of AirBnBs and STRs are starting to come down,adding that th problem “is going to start solving itself.” He says he owns three properties; two of which are STR rentals. Napoli says he lives at the third property but rents a room out and is having trouble getting that room rented now.
Most of the residents in attendance agreed that these STR’s do benefit the community financially, but many felt that money should not be the only consideration.
Resident Lora Devault (photo, right) said the renters at some Airbnb’s are “drunk and noisy. We could’ve been burned out last night. Nobody would have known, and it was windy...I’m just down the street...We have poachers, drunk people (at STRs). STRs “completely destroys our enjoyment of our own properties.”
Another Pine Hills resident said she moved there to get away from AirBnBs in San Diego, only to find short-term rentals popping up in his new community in recent years. “They have destroyed Pine HIlls. We have six in a half mile,” she said, noting there have been problems with party houses. The problem is with off-site owners,not those who live on site, she and others affirmed.
A man celebrating his 96th birthday (photo,left) said he came to Julian’s Whispering Pines area 25 years ago. “Everything changes,” he mused, “but when it starts to infringe on others’ rights, that’s a problem. You’re changing Julian in a way that the people of Julian do not appreciate at all.”
Board member Smith suggested, “There’s responsible management and irresponsible management. We should request a very stiff penalty for owners who are not managing their properties responsibly.” He said owners should “Be there or hire someone” like hotels do.
Rebecca Morales stated that she wants the County to do what other areas have done, with some sort of regulation of STRs.
But Moretti said of regulating STRs, “I think we are going down a slippery slope...and I have a problem telling people what they can do with their properties.”
A response from the owners of the property where the fire occurred was posted on the Julian Connection Facebook page to express their apologies and said their guests were told fires were not allowed.
“We want to first and foremost say we share ALL of your concerns and are very sorry for all who have been impacted by this terrible situation yesterday. We are outraged at the destruction to our property, and more so at the willful and reckless disregard for the community safety and of our rules from these recent guests to our campsite rental area.
The owners also outlined what steps they will be taking moving forward.
Effective immediately, here are the steps we are taking to ensure this does not happen again.
1. My husband and I have decided to shut down our Campsite listing and will no longer rent it out to the public. We’re extremely upset that these guests put everyone in such danger. It’s unacceptable, to say the least. We agree that the risk the campsite poses to our property, and to the community is too great to keep it going.
2. As an added precaution we’re doubling down on our current efforts with all guests about the rules and laws around fire safety in Julian (and specifically at our property). So in addition to our current notes about NO OUTDOOR FIRES, we’ll be adding more written notices and signs inside and outside the home to reiterate that message.”
The message was signed Natalie and Adam.