CITY HALL — A homeowner was put on probation and ordered to pay roughly $4,000 in fines and attorneys fees for using his former Ocean Park pad as a hotel by renting it out to vacationers for short-term stays, a violation of the zoning code, Santa Monica city officials said Thursday.
It is the first prosecution of a case involving illegal short-term rentals, said Yibin Shen, deputy city attorney.
Bruno Vavala, who owned the single-family home at 804 Navy St., ignored several warnings from City Hall to stop renting his home on a short-term basis to large numbers of vacationers, leaving city attorneys with no other option but to file suit to protect the integrity and character of the residential neighborhood, Shen said.
Vavala plead guilty to a misdemeanor on Aug. 2 and will serve one year of probation.
Vavala told the Daily Press Thursday that he did nothing wrong and only pled guilty to settle the case and move on with his life. He has not owned the home since February of last year and blames his troubles on a disgruntled neighbor.
“He and I were not friendly and he made it his job to contact the City Attorney’s Office and threaten them so they acted,” Vavala said. “I pled guilty because I didn’t want to get involved in an expensive legal battle with the city. It would have cost me a lot of money and they would have won anyway. You can’t fight those guys.”
Code enforcement officials said they received several complaints from neighbors about excessive noise, traffic and safety concerns at the Navy Street home due to its illegal use as a hotel.
“In most cases we at least give warnings and don’t go straight to prosecution on land-use violations when there is no immediate health and safety risk,” Shen said. “In most cases the property owner is given a warning and educated on the law and they comply. This owner refused to even talk to our office and really refused all attempts to educate him about the law. … We did not do this lightly.”
Short-term rentals, defined as properties available for terms shorter than 30 days, are barred in all residential zones.
But attaining compliance with the ordinance has long bedeviled officials, especially since the Internet has made it far easier to cheaply advertise properties.
A search of the Internet by the Daily Press in May resulted in numerous hits for illegal vacation rentals in Santa Monica. Properties were offered for nightly and weekly stays, with some going for as much as $2,750 a week.
Calls to several people who were advertising short-term rentals in Santa Monica online revealed the owners were ignorant of, or else unconcerned about, City Hall’s ban on the activity.
Concern about vacation rental ban violations was raised last year, after property owners John and Donna Heidt, who purchased and restored a landmarked beach cottage for use as a second home, sought City Hall’s permission to rent the property out to vacationers during part of the year.
In what some observers called an attempt to get around City Hall’s short-term rental ban, the couple argued their stewardship of the historic property should allow them to designate the cottage a bed and breakfast, though their plan was to operate it as a vacation rental.
The City Council earlier this year declined to issue the permit, sending the Heidt’s proposal back to the Planning Commission for further review.