Big Sur’s STR Problem South Coast is too wild for short-term rentals

“The special characteristic of the Big Sur Coast should also be recognized as a primary resource. Man’s presence along this coast continues to reflect a pioneering attitude of independence and resourcefulness; and the environment has been a special nurturing ground for individual and creative fulfillment. The community itself, and its traditional way of life are resources that can help protect the environment and enhance the visitor experience.”

— Big Sur Land Use Plan

By Kate Woods Novoa

Big Sur is raw, rugged, and humbling. It has been said that she can — and will — spit you out, if you don’t belong here. Long time locals speak of her as if she is an entity. Visitors think of Big Sur as idyllic, and it is in many ways. But this romance does not have a place for short-term rentals.

Those who live here know the difficulties that are a part of the life here: the instability of the road, town trips and school days that must be canceled due to the ever-changing road conditions of Highway 1; storms that take out power lines and telephone lines; slides that take out our main artery, water systems and private roads, not to mention critical bridges; the isolation and the lack of any of the amenities most people have come to not just expect, but need. Get away from the highway, and you may see no services, except what landowners or neighborhoods provide. Here, it is still possible to live up close and personal with Mother Nature. That is why it is humbling. Those who survive the lessons that she has to teach become a community with shared values and a love for this place and one’s place in it.

Fabian Pfortmüller, a Swiss community builder and entrepreneur, defines community “as a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” But community, to me, is more than that. We care about each other, help each other, and care about the places where we live. “This is where the magic of a community happens,” Pfortmüller said. “When people care about each other, they develop trust. And trust unlocks collaboration, sharing, support, hope, safety and much more. While most organizations in the world optimize their performance towards external goals, communities optimize for trust.”

Tales of collaboration, sharing, support, hope and trust are legendary in Big Sur. From the early settlers to the last fire, road closure, or bridge collapse, tales of neighbor helping neighbor abound.

The short-term rental issue has been a divisive issue in almost every community that has faced it. Whether locally, nationally or internationally, there are many sides to this controversy. Big Sur is no different in that regard, but it is different and unique in Big Sur due to the nature of what community means here and because of the issues it deals with daily.

The Monterey County Planning Commission is scheduled to review county policies regarding short-term rentals in Big Sur when it meets in Salinas on July 24. Planners have already discussed the rest of the rural areas of the county, but set aside discussion about Big Sur because of road closures and flooding that made access to the Monterey County Courthouse in Salinas difficult.

There are few services in Big Sur that we don’t provide ourselves. We are responsible for many of our roads, water, septic, electrical and fire safety. Most visitors have no idea where the water comes from, the care of a septic system, what a two-wheel-drive vehicle can do to a dirt road, or how to generate power. For most visitors, these amenities are taken for granted, and they are at a loss when such things fail or are difficult to figure out.

Big Sur is not alone in this divisive perspective. Over in Carmel, the city prohibits virtually all visitor-serving accommodations in areas of Carmel zoned residential. “In order to preserve Carmel-by-the-Sea’s residential character, no home or subordinate unit may be rented for less than 30 consecutive days,” notes the one-line explanation on the city’s website. Fines are levied for each day homes are used as STRs. Carmel’s ordinance was enacted in 1989 and has been in force ever since.

In the United States, five major cities are cracking down on short-term rentals.

The concerns many of us have for Big Sur are echoed in other destination areas. For example, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said in 2018:  “We’re seeing commercialized, predatory companies that are trying to commercialize our residential communities in ways that are damaging to our citizens and our residents and our quality of life. It is predatory.”

He said visitors to Miami Beach were turning nice properties into “essentially a flophouse,” jamming as many people as possible into homes in neighborhoods that weren’t zoned for “that kind of behavior.”

Big Sur is not zoned for this kind of behavior, either. Big Sur is a vast area of 72 miles of coastal mountains that extends from Mal Paso Road in the Carmel Highlands south to the Monterey County line. Within that vast landscape there are only 589 single-family residence parcels, according to Chicago Title of Carmel.

Property taxes from this small number of single-family residence parcels provide all emergency services for approximately 5 million visitors a year. And of these, we lost 91 homes to the fires of the last 10 years, including the Basin, the Pfeiffer, and the Soberanes fires. That is a huge loss in the number of available housing for community work-force housing to support our local businesses and community-based volunteer emergency services.

Big Sur has always been unique in all its various characteristics, but it is also unique in the way community is formed. We consider people who live miles away our “neighbors.” There are enclaves, so to speak, where neighborhoods share a road — a private road not shared with the public. Neighbors in places like Clear Ridge, Pfeiffer Ridge, Partington Ridge and Coastlands sections of Big Sur share the maintenance of their roads. Some neighbors share a water source. People share infrastructure jointly created. All of this results in the trust and care that makes up community.

Community counts on every member. No one does disaster quite as well as Big Sur does. Road closed? Bridge out? Fire breaks out? Yup, we know how to handle that.

No one found out what “neighbor helping neighbor” means more clearly than a former Monterey County sheriff who issued an order during the July 4th weekend that anyone found on Highway 1 during the Basin Fire in 2008 trying to help a neighbor would be arrested. This did not sit well with the Big Sur community.

During the Chalk Fire in October 2008, I received this note from my neighbor, Mary Wargo, who lives five miles away: “This community has lived here with one another for 20 years or more. We have helped raise each other’s children, helped with projects on each other’s land and we are one large family. During this fire everyone stayed to defend their property. I was able to bring in supplies and we were able to help our neighbors. We also had someone at each structure that was knowledgeable with fires, like CDF, etc .… We worked together, what a concept! I wish people would know how amazing this fire was. Everyone on the Mill Creek side live in a heavily wooded area and they made it, with a little help from their friends.”

Big Sur’s community has always been active and involved in protecting this coast from development, from government heavy-handedness, from any attempt to cause damage. Short-term rentals are in contradiction to the stated goals and purposes of the Big Sur Land Use Plan, the government document that establishes how property in the community is used. Because of this, many full-time residents of Big Sur support the efforts of Local Coastal Program Defense Committee. Its efforts are not just to protect the natural landscape, but the cultural values.

Short-term rentals are not conducive to maintaining a sense of community, as other destinations are finding. When available housing is turned into a commercial operation, housing for employees and emergency volunteers disappears. The community provides businesses, staff and emergency volunteer services that would not be available if housing for these same community members is not available.

Our community provides a volunteer Big Sur Fire brigade that is available 24/7 to visitors who venture too far out over the edge, or who get lost in the backcountry, who injure themselves, or who start fires. These men and women must live here — all up and down the coast to be effective. They cannot commute because minutes, even seconds, count.

There are no Cal Fire stations between Carmel Highlands and Cambria, a distance of a little over 92 miles. Every emergency in that 92-mile area depends on the volunteers of Big Sur Fire, who number 21 firefighters and four water tenders, or on the volunteers of the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade, who come from Palo Colorado Canyon to cover the northern section of the coast.

As tourism increases, the need for these emergency services also increases. It seems self-evident that STRs, which bring in even more visitors, must give way to the need to provide emergency services for the already overwhelming numbers of visitors.

STRs have no place in such a small, finite-housing community like Big Sur.

There are many voices in Big Sur. We are a diverse group that disagree about many things, but we do not disagree about our home — this place we all call Big Sur. We are woven together in our love for Big Sur — the mountains, the ocean, the flora, the fauna, and our unfailing love of community.

It is community, working together, that provides the safety net of the only first responders for a long stretch of dangerous highway. Here, community and nature, often working together, create magic. Here, we are a family, even with Mother Nature.

Editor’s note: The date of the Planning Commission hearing was moved to July 24. This story originally said the hearing is next week.

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.