As Supervisor Rodoni stated in his Jan. 11 opinion piece in the Light, “it is my responsibility to find solutions to our communities’ complex problems.” With regards to the influx of travelers in West Marin, it is vital to consider the differences between the two main groups of visitors when proposing solutions to the overall visitor problem as it affects the community.
The visitor problem is defined by the lack of public restrooms, the lack of parking, overwhelming traffic, trash, over-impacts to septic systems, and the lack of familiarity with directions to destinations.
Non-overnight daytrippers represent approximately 97 percent of the people who travel to West Marin. These day visitors benefit businesses such as restaurants, retailers, gas stations, oyster companies, hardware stores and outdoor adventure tours but lack a local host to provide for their needs.
Guests sleeping at local lodging businesses represent 3 percent of people coming to West Marin. Overnight guests are provided toilets, beds, trash containers, parking and directions to places of interest by their hosts. They are charged a 10 percent Transient Occupancy Tax per night to offset their impact on the local area. Lodging businesses are all licensed, inspected by Marin County and approved for specific locations. Overnight guests also contribute a greater amount of money per person per day at local non-lodging businesses.
On any given day, there are a fixed number of West Marin accommodations available to overnight guests. The visitor problem becomes apparent on sunny weekends and holidays when day visitors inundate an area they are unfamiliar with that is also lacking in the infrastructure to properly manage their presence. During such times, West Marin’s overnight lodging is invariably booked solid while the community overflows with daytrippers coming to enjoy the national seashore and other locally focused businesses.
Supervisor Rodoni hopes to gerrymander the Fourth District to create an arbitrary geographical area of West Marin, imposing a 50 percent increase in the T.O.T. on only those lodging businesses operating within his redrawn boundaries. These same lodging businesses already provide toilets, beds, trash containers, parking and directions. Supervisor Rodoni states this added tax would go toward funding affordable housing and emergency services.
The original T.O.T. was established in the 1960s by Bakersfield’s lodging industry, which taxed lodging businesses 4 percent in an effort to bring business into the community while providing a visitor center with public restrooms and directions to other businesses and local experiences. That intended purpose has been usurped by some city and county governments, with the funds now usually ending up in the general fund, as is true for Marin.
Affordable housing, long-term rentals and employee housing are very real issues shared by all communities in Marin County. They are inherently deserving of in-depth community discussions and urgently in need of local leadership. At their core, however, these issues are separate from the visitor problem and it is not fair or logical for Supervisor Rodoni to attempt to link them together for political ends.
Many people may feel these problems have been exacerbated by the growth of the Airbnbs and other short-term rental concepts. Other residents may not appreciate having a home-turned-mini-hotel join the rhythm of their residential neighborhood. Like West Marin visitors, short-term rentals are also comprised of two separate groups that may be linked together in the community’s view. Hotels, motels and B&Bs with operators living on-site are licensed, inspected by Marin County and have long been neighbors in the community. In contrast, Airbnbs, VRBOs, HomeAways and other short-term rentals are unregulated housing business models only recently introduced into the local area.
In West Marin, while we all support affordable housing and emergency services, there is no discernible connection between these causes and the existing licensed lodging businesses. Thus, calling on only one industry alone to fund these crucial needs is simply not fair, not reasonable and not even the best approach. Further, given their finite number of rooms, lodging businesses do not benefit from increases in day visitor traffic as other businesses can. Is it right that other West Marin businesses benefit from day visitors while not contributing to solving the visitor problem from which they are poised to benefit?
Does fairness matter in a community? Does Supervisor Rodoni simply hope to use the most convenient taxing vehicle at his disposal? How can our community come together to solve the visitor problem in a positive, collaborative manner? The national and state parks will continue to be a draw to myriad travelers who are as impressed with the area as we are. Thus, as citizens of West Marin, we have an opportunity to address these issues properly and thereby build a foundation to protect our community and way of life.
Jeff Harriman is a former West Marin Chamber of Commerce president, the chamber’s point person for former Supervisor Steve Kinsey’s previous T.O.T. increase, a lifelong Woodacre resident and owner of the Tomales Bay Resort and Marina.