Big Bear Lake officials hope change helps B&B, lodging businesses

The city of Big Bear Lake city is changing its development code to allow bed and breakfast owners to rent or lease their businesses for such purposes, as conferences, weddings and food service during the day.

"Many of these properties are just wonderful physical settings that are underutilized and constrained by our existing zoning code," said City Manager Jeff Mathieu. "Only registered guests can use the properties."

For years, bed and breakfast and lodge operators have complained to the city about smaller lodges operating in residential zones having a competitive edge over them due to fewer regulations.

The complaints have forced the city to figure out a way to even the playing field in a fiercely competitive market full of options but one dependent on tourist and vacationer dollars.

Once the development code has been amended to include the new initiatives, bed and breakfast and lodge operators will be able to "opt in" on specific uses during the day.

They could upgrade their kitchens to serve food, rent their patios and courtyards for weddings or lease their rooms for conferences, meetings, depositions and other similar activities. They can even increase business visibility by putting up bigger signs, Mathieu said.

Linda Carpenter, owner of the eight-room Alpenhorn Bed & Breakfast on Knight Avenue, is seriously considering some major changes to her business once the new development code is in place.

"Right now, I'm trying to weigh my options as to how to get day use out of the inn, such as bridal showers and baby showers," Carpenter said. "I'm considering having a wedding show for local vendors, florists and photographers."

She's also considering the feasibility of renting her business to entire families for reunions, providing them with all the amenities to prepare their own meals, among other things.

"Anything to increase the revenue, as opposed to just having the nightly rentals," she said.

Some believe the city's efforts are minimal at best and don't address the real problem.

"They're nice gestures that are only 10 percent or less the way to helping us," said Bob Pool, president of the Big Bear Lodging Association and owner of the 18-unit Sleepy Forest Lodge on Eureka Drive and the eight-unit Kathy's Country Cottages in Big Bear City.

He believes tougher health-code regulations for lodge operators like himself are the crux of the problem.

For example, bed and breakfasts and lodges are subject to annual inspections by the county health officials, whereas vacation rentals aren't, he said.

He said it could cost a bed and breakfast or lodge operator up to $30,000 to operate a Jacuzzi, whereas private home rentals aren't subject to the same regulations.

Pool believes one solution would be for the county Department of Health Services to re-enact a code that was in effect from March 2006 to April 2007 that subjected private home rental operators to the same regulations as commercial lodge operators for spas and hot tubs.

During that time, spas and hot tubs at private home rentals were listed as "commercial type units," and required permits and inspections from the health agency just as commercial lodges did.

The city attorney contested it, issuing an opinion in April 2006 saying that the "public" pool provisions of the state health and safety code did not appear to be intended to apply to spas and hot tubs at private rentals.

In May 2007, the county health department reversed its determination and withdrew the mandate for private home rentals. In place of those requirements, the department issued a set of guidelines for operating and using spas or hot tubs at vacation rental homes.

The city now has its own staff that inspects private home rentals to make sure they comply with those guidelines, Mathieu said.

Pool believes the more lenient regulations for private home rentals are killing the commercial lodge business in the Big Bear Valley.

"As president of the lodging association, all we're doing is trying to hang on, and lots of our friends are going out of business," he said.

Mathieu believes it's not about the regulations, but about a shift in market trends providing more options for those who come to the mountains for recreation.

"The difference of the lodging offering is what makes for the competitive edge or difference," Mathieu said.

For example, a bed and breakfast may be ideal for a couple planning an overnight stay and wanting room service and all the catering, whereas a cabin rental may be more suitable for a family planning a weekend stay and preferring a more homelike setting.

Lynn Wheeler, owner of Blue Skies Real Estate, is all too familiar with this argument. He has been selling real estate in the Big Bear Valley for 28 years and was in the resort rental business before selling that arm of his business to a competitor.

He said he has heard these concerns from the bed and breakfast and lodge operators for more than 20 years but has to agree with Mathieu: It's a shift in market trends that is fueling the competition.

"We're not comparing apples to apples when it comes to clients," he said. "It's just a matter of offering a different type of stay."


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