Split remains on revised TOT hike

06/21/2018

On Tuesday, District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni introduced his proposal to raise the transient occupancy tax to generate funds for emergency services and affordable housing in West Marin to his fellow board members, who agreed to the drafting of an ordinance for the November ballot, despite expressing some reservations. 

During the public comment portion of the meeting, residents and local affordable housing advocates voiced strong support for the proposal, while the owners of longstanding bed and breakfasts and hotels rang alarm about potential impacts to business. The testimony mirrored the conversation that has taken place at the local level since Supervisor Rodoni first unveiled his idea in January. 

“This is about as close to local democracy as you can get,” Supervisor Rodoni said in his concluding remarks. “[The idea] was bred in the community, it was vetted in the community, and we’re just asking for an opportunity to put it on the ballot.”

The proposed 50 percent rise in the transient occupancy tax, or T.O.T., to 15 percent would apply only to West Marin, from Dillon Beach south to Muir Beach and east to Nicasio and the San Geronimo Valley. 

The hike, estimated to generate $1.3 million annually, would be divided equally for affordable housing and emergency services in West Marin only. The other 10 percent would continue to go into the county’s general fund. Last year, West Marin generated 80 percent of the $3.4 million the tax generated for Marin’s general fund, reflecting the booming industry.

All of the supervisors complimented Supervisor Rodoni and his staff on their thorough work to put together the proposal, though they also cited a few concerns—including the economic impact and setting a precedent that would encourage other Marin jurisdictions.  

Supervisor Rodoni said the Marin Economic Forum is investigating the impact and will likely have a report ready this summer. 

Supervisor Katie Rice also wondered if it would be better to more broadly define the allocation of the funds, as needs in West Marin are likely to change over time. Supervisor Rodoni assured her that over the year-plus that he has held public office, emergency services and affordable housing were the two most pressing common needs identified by his constituents.

Supervisor Kathrin Sears also expressed concern about the latest addition to the proposal—newly taxing campgrounds under the T.O.T., at 5 percent. According to Supervisor Rodoni, the largest campground in West Marin, Lawson’s Landing, would see a $2 per night rise. 

Business owners who spoke on Tuesday remained upset with the proposal, with many pointing fingers at their representative for not adequately addressing their misgivings. 

Numerous members of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce, which voted to not support the initiative, spoke. They argued that the tax increase might backfire, deterring tourism and lowering the county’s projections for overall T.O.T. revenues. Additionally, they rejected the fact that a few business owners would have to shoulder the burden of funding important services for West Marin, advocating instead for other approaches such as an increase to the sales tax. 

They also pointed out that overnight guests in the area are not the main contributors to the visitor problems in West Marin: day-trippers account for 97 percent of visitors.

Bill Wigert, owner of the Black Heron Inn in Point Reyes Station, repeated an argument he expressed numerous times regarding the legality of establishing a special tax district in West Marin to confine the tax hike to this side of the hill—though county counsel assured the board there are no legal transgressions. 

Doris Ferrando, owner of Fernando’s Hideaway in Point Reyes Station, said that at a public meeting held earlier this year, Supervisor Rodoni had told her that he “didn’t care” about her concern that the hike would put her out of business. Later in the meeting, he made a point to clarify that his memory of the conversation was that he had tried to express his indifference as to whether she switched to long-term rentals as the result of the increase. 

Representatives from the Bolinas Community Land Trust, the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin, the Stinson Beach Village Association, the Muir Beach Community Services District and San Geronimo Affordable Housing Association spoke in support of the supervisor’s proposal, as did multiple residents from Stinson Beach and Bolinas. 

Arianne Dar, executive director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust, addressed a comment from real estate agent Niz Brown that the estimated $600,000 would not go very far in today’s housing market. 

“The Bolinas Community Land Trust has had at least 12, maybe 15, opportunities in the last year to purchase housing, to purchase property, to purchase things that we could turn into affordable housing, but we can’t act quickly because in order to get funding, you have to have a property and in order to get a property you have to have funding,” Ms. Dar said. “That $600,000 can be enough for us to put a down payment on something long enough to get the funding in place with the county, with the foundations, to be able to turn that into affordable housing. Without that, we lose that property to someone who comes in with cash overnight.”

Supervisor Rodoni added that CLAM has put together a white paper describing all the possible uses for the funds, only some of which relate to purchasing property. 

As far as funding for additional emergency personnel staffing and equipment, a preliminary draft of the ordinance released this spring stated that the tax increase might help the Bolinas Fire Protection District add an employee, and that a county first responder team that serves the southern half of West Marin would shift from a seasonal posting to year-round operation. 

At other stations, additional funds might go toward housing stipends for water operators and volunteer firefighters.

Per the supervisors’ direction, the board’s subcommittee on short-term rentals was tasked with ironing out any remaining kinks in the proposal, and county counsel will prepare a draft ordinance for board consideration on July 10. 

If it’s approved, a two-thirds majority will be needed to pass the special ballot measure in November.