Cities Can Stem the Tide of Short-Term Coastal Rental Homes
The growing popularity of online rental
platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway has increased short-term rentals in
residential neighborhoods in California, especially along the coast.
Short-term rentals can lead to increased noise, trash, disorderly conduct, traffic
congestion, and can deplete long-term rental housing in neighborhoods where
they exist. The
city of Del Mar recently acted on this issue by passing an ordinance restricting
short-term rentals in residential areas.
The Coastal Commission rejected the ordinance, contending that it impermissibly
restricted public access to the coast.
Del Mar filed a writ petition to clarify the Coastal Commission’s authority to reject
the proposed ordinance.
This article analyzes the conflict between the Coastal Commission’s mandate
under the Coastal Act and a city’s constitutional power to enact local land use
regulations, and concludes that cities likely do not need commission approval
to restrict short-term residential rentals because such ordinances do not
contravene the Coastal Act.
The Coastal Act Prioritizes Public Access
to the Coast
The legislature passed the Coastal Act in 1976,
which the California Supreme Court characterized as “a comprehensive scheme to
govern land use planning for the entire coastal zone of California.”
The Coastal Act directs the Coastal Commission to conserve coastal resources
and maximize public access to the coast.
It requires local governments in the coastal zone to prepare local coastal
programs that include zoning and land use plans that the Commission must then
The Coastal Act also assigns permitting authority to the commission for all
development in the coastal zone.
The Coastal Act sets standards for the commission
to use when analyzing the local coastal programs, program amendments, and
The commission must prioritize public access: low cost visitor and recreational
facilities are “encouraged,” and public recreational facilities are “preferred.”
Similarly, private “visitor serving” facilities “have priority over” private
residential, general industrial, and general commercial development.
In a recent amendment to the Coastal Act, the legislature declared a “lack of
affordable accommodations remains a barrier to coastal access.”
Del Mar Can Enact Local Ordinances That Do
Not Implicate Statewide Concerns
The state constitution grants cities several
powers to enact local laws. Del Mar has a general police power under article
XI, section 7. And
Del Mar has charter city powers under article XI, section 5(a).
Under the “home rule” provision, Del Mar has supremacy over its municipal
a city’s power to enact local laws is not unlimited. In matters of statewide
concern, state law will prevail. 
Here, if a court finds the legislature intended to fully occupy the field of public
access to the coast, the Coastal Act will supersede Del Mar’s ordinance
restricting short-term residential rentals.
The Coastal Commission Cannot Require Del
Mar to Revise Its Ordinance
The commission rejected Del Mar’s ordinance for
being too restrictive. The Coastal Commission could argue that it can preempt the
ordinance because it conflicts with Coastal Act policies, either because it is an
amendment to the city’s local coastal program and must be certified, or because
it is a “development” under the Coastal Act that requires a permit. The commission
can also argue that Del Mar’s ordinance conflicts with the Coastal Act’s enumerated
goals of protecting coastal access and encouraging lower cost visitor and
As explained below, none of those arguments should prevail.
is unlikely to find express preemption
The commission likely will argue that the Coastal
Act expressly preempts Del Mar’s ordinance because it should be broadly defined
to encompass short-term rentals. Del Mar has the better argument here, because the
legislature did not clearly manifest an intent to regulate short-term rentals
when it passed the Coastal Act.
To determine whether Del Mar’s ordinance is
expressly preempted, a court will first look to the Coastal Act’s language.
Section 30009 of the Coastal Act says it “shall be liberally construed to
accomplish its purposes and objectives,” including to “[m]aximize public access to and along the coast.”
Courts have also interpreted the Coastal Act’s oversight scheme as necessary to ensure that state policies protecting
public access to coastal resources prevail over local pressures. Furthermore, the
Coastal Act expressly requires Coastal Commission review of local land use
plans for conformity with the statewide policy goals.
The Act’s wording demonstrates an intent to allow
local governments to develop land use policies. Although the Coastal Commission
can review local coastal programs, the commission cannot “diminish or abridge” a
local government’s power to establish the “precise content” of its land use
Neither of the Coastal Act’s policies protecting lower cost visitor facilities
explicitly requires a city to allow short-term residential rentals.
The Coastal Act does not diminish Del Mar’s ability to choose the precise
method of increasing access to the coast. Del Mar could restrict short-term
rentals and increase coastal access by providing other public access
opportunities. For example, Del Mar could expand public parks and areas zoned
for other types of visitor accommodations. Such actions would advance the legislature’s
directive. When the legislature addressed a lack of affordable accommodations
in a recent Coastal Act amendment, it mentioned various accommodations,
including hotels, motels, hostels, cabins, and camping opportunities.
The legislature omitted short-term rentals from its list, which supports Del
Mar’s argument its ordinance is not expressly preempted.
Del Mar can also argue an absence of conflict between
the Coastal Act and its ordinance. Before reaching the question of statewide
concern, a court will evaluate whether a genuine conflict exists between a
charter city measure and a state law.
City and state initiatives conflict when they cannot be reconciled “short
of choosing between one enactment and the other.”
The commission may argue that Del Mar’s
restrictions on short-term rentals conflict with the Coastal Act policies that emphasize
the need to protect lower cost visitor facilities because they would conceivably reduce the availability of overnight
accommodations for visitors who wish to stay at a house or cannot afford to
stay an entire week. The commission could show that
short-term rentals are more affordable than hotels and better serve people who
require or prefer the amenities of houses.
Yet the legislature intended the commission to
use the Coastal Act’s policies as a guide to evaluate local coastal programs — not
to mandate or prohibit specific land uses.
The Coastal Act acknowledges the possibility of conflicting policies and allows
for a resolution that is “on balance” most protective of coastal resources.
This means that the commission’s policy interpretation is not
outcome-determinative. Del Mar can argue that on balance the ordinance would
protect the overall quality of the coastal environment in residential areas,
and that other components of its local land use plans ensure that public access
to the coast is expanded. On that basis, a court could uphold the ordinance as
consistent with the Coastal Act, rather than resolving a dispute between them.
evidence does not support implied preemption
term “short-term rentals” do not appear in the Coastal Act, so the commission
probably must make an implied preemption argument. Del Mar has a good argument that
the policies regarding low-cost visitor facilities do not encompass the subject
of short-term rental regulation to the exclusion of local action. Allowing
residents to rent out their homes is just one of many possible ways a city can enable
coastal access. And the Coastal Act recognizes a local government policy-making
role in regulating land use: it requires a city’s land use plan to
adhere to its development priorities “only to the extent necessary to achieve
the basic state goals.”
If Del Mar can show its land use plans
enable greater public access to the coast, then its ordinance restricting
short-term rentals is an acceptable regulation. The legislature acknowledged that
it is necessary to rely on local government for local land use planning
procedures and enforcement to achieve “maximum responsiveness to local conditions.” A court would read this provision as legislative
intent to allow cities to retain the ability to make policy decisions in
accordance with local conditions. City governments can zone short-term rentals
according to local needs even if the commission disagrees with the precise
details of the regulations.
argument that the legislature impliedly manifested its intent to fully occupy
the area of short-term rental regulation should fail. A court will look to the
following indicia of legislative intent: the general law so completely
covers the subject as to clearly indicate the matter is exclusively one of
state concern; the general law partially covers the subject in terms clearly
indicating a paramount state concern that will not tolerate further local
action; or the general law partially covers the subject and the adverse effect
of a local ordinance on transient citizens of the state outweighs the possible
legislature did not completely cover the subject of short-term rentals because
it did not explicitly address them in the Coastal Act. The commission can argue
that Del Mar’s ordinance is nonetheless preempted because the Coastal Act
partially covers the subject in terms that indicate a paramount state concern.
The legislature made maximizing public access to the coast a main goal of the Coastal
Act and required the commission to prioritize public access when certifying
programs and issuing development permits. The commission can argue that
by emphasizing how a lack of affordable accommodations acts as a barrier to
coastal access, the legislature has indicated a preference for fewer restrictions
on short-term rentals in areas with insufficient low-cost accommodations. The
commission could also argue the Coastal Act implicitly preempts the ordinance
because the adverse effects on
transient citizens outweigh the possible municipal benefits. The commission can rely on
the legislature’s declaration that a diminished supply of low-cost
accommodations is a barrier to coastal access to argue Del Mar’s ordinance will
exacerbate the barriers to coastal access that exist for many Californians and
Mar may respond that the ordinance will result in significant benefits to its
residents because it addresses the problems caused by online rental platforms,
including increased noise, traffic, and disorderly conduct. The ordinance could
arguably have more far-reaching benefits because it addresses the statewide dearth
of affordable housing by preventing expensive short-term vacation rentals from
replacing more affordable long-term rentals. If Del Mar can present evidence that the ordinance provides benefits that
outweigh adverse effects on transient citizens, then it will have a stronger
argument that regulation of short-term rentals should not be preempted by the
There is no clear indication that the legislature
intended to preempt local regulation of short-term rentals when it enacted the Coastal
Act. The Act contains no express reference to short-term rentals and the statutory
language does not show an intent to preempt local regulation on the subject. Instead,
the Act specifically recognizes the need for cities to zone as they see fit. Although
the legislature recently declared that a lack of affordable accommodations
remains a barrier to coastal access, it did not mandate that cities allow short-term
residential rentals as a solution. A court is unlikely to conclude that the legislature
intended the Coastal Act to be “so overshadowing that it obliterates all
vestiges of local power as to a subject where municipalities have traditionally
enjoyed a broad measure of autonomy.”
Ordinance Passes the Municipal Affairs Test
Even if a court found a conflict between the
Coastal Act and Del Mar’s ordinance, the city could argue that its ordinance
should prevail over state law because regulating short-term rentals is a
The ordinance involves land use planning and zoning, which have been traditionally
viewed as necessary and appropriate municipal government powers.
Where a charter city’s initiative implicates a municipal affair, under the
“municipal affairs test,” the court must next analyze whether the conflicting statute
implicates a statewide concern.
A charter city initiative is prohibited when a statute addressing a statewide
concern is “reasonably related” and “narrowly tailored” to its resolution.
The commission may argue that land use
affecting coastal resources is an issue of statewide concern, and that Del Mar’s
ordinance would reduce coastal access for everyone from outside the city.
The Coastal Act’s broad language about protecting lower cost visitor facilities
supports the commission’s argument that it addresses a statewide concern.
A court is likely to find that the Coastal Act implicates a statewide concern related
to preserving access to the state’s coastline.
But the Coastal Act is not narrowly-tailored to
the issue of short-term rentals. Del Mar should argue that although the Act
provides guidelines to inform local decision-making, they do not displace a
charter city’s ability to decide the precise content of its land use and zoning
laws. If they did, chartered cities would lose almost all power to craft
regulations affecting land use. Since courts do not interpret state laws to
render constitutional provisions superfluous, a court will likely find that the
specific issue of short-term rental regulation is not a statewide concern.
Even if the Coastal Act covers short-term
rental regulation, Del Mar’s ordinance may still be upheld based on how the
Coastal Act allocates authority between the commission and local governments. The
statutory scheme imposes some procedural restrictions but leaves cities with a measure
of local autonomy.
The Coastal Act neither mandates nor prohibits specific coastal land uses,
which shows that the legislature anticipated that local governments would
continue to control the location of particular land uses. When a court reviews
the meaning and scope of the Coastal Act, it is likely to conclude that the
state law is not “narrowly tailored” to the concern of short-term rentals.
Consequently, Del Mar need not yield to the commission’s requirement to permit more
lenient short-term rental regulations as long as there are sufficient lower-cost
Mar’s Ordinance is Not a Development
Even if a court finds that state law does not
preempt Del Mar’s ordinance, the commission could argue that the regulation
constitutes “development” under the Coastal Act and cannot proceed without a
permit. The Coastal Act defines development as “the placement or erection of
any solid material or structure” or “change in the density or intensity of use
There is some support for the commission’s argument
that the ordinance changes the intensity of use of land because it would reduce
the number of visitors to the city’s residential coastal areas. For example, in
Greenfield v. Mandalay Shores Community
Association, the court adopted a broad definition of “development” when it noted
a homeowners association’s resolution banning short-term rentals would change
the intensity of use and access to single family residences along the coast.
The court held that “development” under the Coastal Act “is not restricted to
activities that physically alter the land or water” and relied on cases where
courts found locking a gate and posting “no trespassing” signs on property that
the public had regularly used to access the beach required a permit.
Yet Del Mar could convincingly argue its
ordinance is not a development. Del Mar can distinguish the cases the Greenfield court relied on, because unlike
access pathways, the public never had guaranteed access to private coastal residences.
Homeowners make the decision whether to rent out a residence, which inevitably
results in only a small percentage of the public having this kind of access to
the coast. In HomeAway.com, Inc. v. Santa
Monica the court rejected the online rental platform plaintiffs’ claim that
Santa Monica’s short-term rental regulation amounted to “development” because
it found no support for departing from the “common sense definition and
understanding of the term.”
Although this ordinance may change the intensity of land use, Del Mar could
argue that adopting such a broad view of “development” would be contrary to legislative
intent, because it would subject all city land use regulations to commission
review. This proves too much, and it is inconsistent with the Coastal Act’s
clear language that general land use plans and zoning decisions are to be
reviewed within the context of a local coastal program, not as individual
The commission could argue that, as the
administrative agency charged with implementing the Coastal Act, its
interpretation of the statute should be given considerable weight.
But the commission’s view is not entitled to deference here because determining
the scope of the agency’s authority is a court’s task.
No case holds that land use regulations constitute “development” under the
Coastal Act. And the statutory scheme gives permitting authority to both the commission
and local governments. Accordingly, it is unlikely that a court will conclude
that Del Mar’s ordinance requires a coastal development permit.
the inherently local nature of land use, the Coastal Act highlights the tension
that exists between statewide policies and the constitutional power of local
governments. A court will likely conclude that the Coastal Act does not
prohibit Del Mar’s ordinance restricting short-term rentals. Additional conflicts
over meaningful coastal access are likely, given that the priorities of private
property owners, online rental platforms, local governments, and the commission
are often not aligned. Here, it is unnecessary to reduce local government power
to achieve the Coastal Act’s objectives: Del Mar’s ordinance can be upheld as
consistent with those goals.
Talia Edelman is a second-year student at Berkeley Law.
Jill Replogie, Do Californians Have a
Right to Airbnb on the Coast?, KQED
(Feb. 3, 2017)
Mar is a small coastal city approximately twenty miles north of San Diego. https://www.delmar.ca.us/. Phil Diehl, Del Mar Takes State to Court Over Short-Term
Rentals, The San Diego Union-Tribune
(Jul. 19, 2018) https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/sd-no-delmar-court-20180719-story.html.
Lori Weisberg, How Will San Diego Fend
off Coastal Commission, Legal Challenges to Airbnb Rules?, The San Diego Union-Tribune (Jul. 21,
Weisberg, How Will San Diego Fend off
Coastal Commission, Legal Challenges to Airbnb Rules?, The San Diego Union-Tribune (Jul. 21,
Del Mar’s ordinance would limit vacation rentals in residential areas to a minimum
of seven days at a time and no more than twenty-eight days per year. The
Coastal Commission rejected the ordinance and proposed changes that would set
the minimum stay at three days and the yearly maximum at 100 days.
 Pacific Palisades Bowl Mobile Estates, LLC
v. City of Los Angeles (2012) at 793; Pub. Resources Code § 30103. The
coastal zone extends inland generally 1,000 yards from the coast. All further
statutory references are to the Coastal Act contained in the Public Resources
Code unless otherwise indicated.
1972 voter initiative (Proposition 20) established the Coastal Commission, an
independent quasi-judicial agency. The adoption of the Coastal Act made this
commission permanent. §§ 30001, 30001.5(c); Ibarra v. Cal. Coastal Com. (1986) at 693.
30500, 30108.6, 30600, subd. (a).
§§ 30512, subds. (a)–(c); 30514; 30620.
 § 30222. Private recreational facilities do not have
priority over “agriculture or coastal-dependent industry.”
 § 31411, subd. (d), added by Stats. 2017, ch. 838, § 3, eff. Jan. 1, 2018. The legislature emphasized that “[l]ower cost accommodations, including hotels, motels, hostels, cabins, and camping opportunities, are essential elements of coastal and park access because they enable Californians and visitors from a variety of backgrounds, including those of low and moderate income, to enjoy California’s beaches and parks and experience the full range of recreational, educational, spiritual, and other experiences offered.”
Land use regulation is a legitimate exercise of a city’s constitutional police
power if it provides for the public health, safety and general welfare of its
Home Builders etc., Inc. v. City of Livermore (1976) at 604; Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926) at 388; Miller v. Board of Public Works (1925) 195 Cal. 477, 488.
Del Mar was incorporated as a charter city, but the charter was limited to
imposing an admissions tax at its fairgrounds. Voters approved a charter
amendment related to land use and zoning in November 2018. Bianca Kaplenek, Del Mar Seeks Land-Use Changes With Charter
Amendment, The Coast News
(Apr. 12, 2018)
Lexy Brodt, Gaasterland, Worden Claim Del
Mar Council Seats, Measure R Defeated, The
Coast News (Nov. 8, 2018) https://www.thecoastnews.com/gaasterland-worden-claim-del-mar-council-seats-measure-r-defeated/.
Cal. Fed. Savings & Loan Assn. v. City
of Los Angeles (1991) at 17 (Cal.
Fed. Savings); Bishop
v. City of San Jose (1969) at 61; Fisher v. City of Berkeley (1984) at
 Cal. Fed. Savings, supra note 16, at 7;Professional Fire Fighters, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles (1963) at 292, fn. 11.
§§ 30213, 30222.
§§ 30213, 30222.
 Id. at 17.
30512.2, subd. (a).
 § 30512.2.
 §§ 30001.5, 30200.
Resource Technologies v. Dept. of Public Health (1994) at 306.
Building and Construction Trades Council v. City of Vista (2012)
 Id. at 900.
See HomeAway, supra note 57, at 5; Yamaha
Corp. of America v. State Bd. Of Equalization (1998) at 11, fn. 4 (conc. opn. of Mosk, J.).