SAN FRANCISCO -- The knock on the front door of the South Lake Tahoe vacation rental was a surprise.
It was the first family getaway together for Dr. Gus Pries and his extended family. With six adults, four children ranging from 3 months to 5 years old, suitcases, snow gear and groceries, the San Jose residents took three cars for their Presidents Day weekend trip.
When they arrived, they parked all the cars on the rental property while they unloaded and used the bathroom. Then came the knock.
A police officer said they were receiving a $1,000 ticket for having one too many cars on site, and the property's owner would be fined an additional $1,000. The family's explanation that it was just temporary and they planned to move the third car fell on deaf ears, Pries said.
``It's preposterous and unfair,'' said Pries, a San Jose dentist. ``I've never been treated so poorly as a tourist. It's not like we were having a big party or the 3-year-olds were doing a beer bong.''
As South Lake Tahoe struggles with a proliferation of vacation-home rentals in its residential neighborhoods, the El Dorado County town has enacted tough new rules, slapping $1,000 fines on both vacation-rental guests and owners for infractions related to noise, parking, trash, too many visitors, too many cars or hot-tubbing after 10 p.m.
Homeowners say the influx of weekend visitors, some of whom they describe as drunken revelers, destroys their tranquillity and neighborhood character. They point to new McMansions with eight or more bedrooms being built specifically to house tourists. They'd like to ban vacation rentals altogether in residential areas.
But business and civic leaders fear hurting the region's No. 1 industry, tourism. Some 41 percent of the alpine town's jobs are directly related to out-of-town visitors, while many other sectors, such as retail, also benefit. Meanwhile, vacation-home owners say they rely on the income.
The conflict mirrors similar ones being played out in other California tourist towns, including Monterey, Palm Springs, Santa Monica, and the Los Angeles County cities of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. In San Francisco, where leisure and hospitality account for 11 percent of jobs, the city enacted registration requirements for short-term rentals in 2014. These are now being strictly enforced after several years of battles. While San Francisco and some other cities have steep penalties for property owners and websites that arrange illicit vacation rentals, Tahoe stands out for fining guests as well as owners.
“It is polarizing,” said Brian Uhler, the South Lake Tahoe police chief. “There are two factions: those who feel the neighborhoods are no longer peaceful, and those who are in the vacation business or just don't mind the rentals. The city is trying to accommodate both.”
The law, which took effect Dec. 22, has a “three strikes” provision: Vacation-home owners who receive three upheld violations within 24 months lose their short-term-rental permit -- forever.
That's spurred neighborhood vigilantism. ``A lot of people have told us ... their (complaint) call is basically to get rid of the vacation rental that's near them,'' said Maureen Stuhlman, vacation-home-rental investigator for the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.
The small city now has six dedicated code-enforcement officers policing its 1,850 rentals, plus an investigator and an outside firm, Host Compliance, to make sure they are legally registered. San Francisco, by contrast, has six staffers to monitor 4,800 vacation rentals. Vacation-rental owners in South Lake Tahoe soon will face steep hikes in permit fees to cover the staff costs, Uhler said.
The new law requires the hefty $1,000 penalties on first offense. The reason: Warnings would have no impact, since there are new visitors every weekend.
Some residents say it's still not enough. They're gathering signatures for a proposal on November's ballot to outlaw all vacation rentals in the town's residential areas within three years. Only rentals in a 1.5-mile-long tourist strip that runs along Highway 50 starting at the Nevada state line would be allowed. (Permanent residents could still rent to tourists for up to 30 days a year, while longer-term ``ski leases'' for a month or more would not be affected.)
``My neighborhood is inundated with vacation rentals,'' said Peggy Bourland, a resident since 1972 who is active in Tahoe Neighborhoods Group, the group proposing the initiative. ``It's changed people's sense of safety and familiarity. You can have literally anyone next door to you: someone with a criminal background, or a frat party or a bachelor party, all kinds of gatherings that create noise and impact.''
In response, builders, real estate agents, restaurant owners, house cleaners, the Chamber of Commerce and the Lodging Association started their own group, the Sustainable Community Alliance. If the ban makes it to the ballot, they may submit a competing measure.
``We want to protect our economy,'' said Sharon Kerrigan, executive vice president of the South Tahoe Association of Realtors. ``We want reasonable regulations so locals can have peaceful enjoyment, but we want to balance that with property rights of people who want to rent on a short-term basis and bring more tourism to the area.''
Already some real estate investors are talking about unloading their properties.
``Sooner or later we will sell our house,'' said one vacation-rental owner who has already received two $1,000 citations for guests who briefly had an extra car. If she gets another one, she can no longer rent to tourists.
If scores follow her example, the inventory flood could exert downward pressure on home prices.
The anti-vacation-rental forces say they hope that such homes could become permanent housing, easing the region's crunch.
But others say that's unlikely, since many of the homes are large, luxurious properties. ``We don't think vacation rentals take away places that otherwise could be rented affordably,'' said T.J. Clark, CEO of TurnKey Vacation Rentals, which manages dozens of properties in the area. ``These homes will not go back into long-term-rental circulation.''
The new law has already eased some problems, both sides say. But opinions differ on whether it's draconian.
``They've gone too far with the fines,'' said Steve Teshera, CEO of the Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce. ``It's visitor-unfriendly, very punitive. Some people look at how things impact them directly, not the cumulative impact on the city and community. You can't say no to everything because the city's economy will be in shambles.''
Support for the rules comes from a surprising quarter: Airbnb. The San Francisco company's megawatt success spurred the growth of vacation rentals worldwide, and incited numerous controversies like that in South Lake Tahoe, where it lists several hundred rentals.
``We support measures to protect quality of life and think that these sort of rules are appropriate for markets like South Lake Tahoe that have welcomed short-term renters for generations,'' Airbnb said in a statement.
Likewise, Jerry Bindel, who manages a 260-unit condo complex, many of which are vacation rentals, supports the fines, although not the prospective ban.
``It has to be enough to get the attention of the person staying in the vacation rental,'' he said. ``If it's $100, that shock-and-awe value isn't there. If it's $1,000, the person renting the unit will make sure the visitors know.''
South Lake Tahoe has 1,400 vacation rentals, mainly entire homes, in neighborhoods. Those would be banned under the proposed initiative. Already that number is capped by the city; at least 100 more properties are on a waiting list. Another 450 vacation rentals, mainly condos, are in the tourist core, and would remain.
Vacation rentals account for up to 8 percent of all the housing stock. With a population of some 22,000, South Lake Tahoe has 15,000 housing units, but half of them are second homes or seasonal rentals, such as vacation homes.
Vacation-home rentals bring in $3 million a year in hotel taxes, about 3.4 percent of the town's revenue. Losing that money ``would be devastating for our city budget,'' said Mayor Wendy David. ``It would equal at least 30 employees.''
The folks who want to ban residential vacation rentals say they're not anti-tourist. They think visitors will simply transition to staying in hotels or condos in the commercial corridor. More condos are on the drawing board for that area, and they could become vacation rentals, Bourland said.
``I now have 22 vacation rentals within 500 feet of my house,'' said Jerry Goodman, who has lived in Tahoe for 54 years, and built his house in Heavenly Valley 40 years ago. ``In the whole Heavenly ski part of town, there's not one single schoolchild anymore, no families. We don't have a neighborhood anymore.
''On Friday afternoons, you see who pulls up. If it's 10 guys unloading kegs of beer, you know it's gonna be trouble. We're fed up.``