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The Airbnb of Camping Presents Many of the Same Issues for Regulators

Californians have found a new way to camp – and like short-term vacation rentals and ride-sharing companies, it’s presenting a new challenge to government regulators.

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Californians have found a new way to camp – and like short-term vacation rentals and ride-sharing companies, it’s presenting a new challenge to government regulators.

Hipcamp launched in 2013 to deal with issues with which California campers are likely familiar. Campsites fill up fast. People often have to book spots six months in advance. The government websites campers use to book campsites on public land are badly designed and hard to navigate.

The service tried to improve that process in California, and now its slick, easy-to-use website has expanded to the entire country, and also lets people book camping destinations on private land.

It’s the Airbnb of camping. Property owners rent their land through the website. Would-be campers can search Hipcamp listings by location, and can filter based on price and amenities such as “potable water,” “toilets” or “hiking.” Hosts charge anywhere between $20 and more than $100 a night.

About 20 landowners in San Diego County are using the site, offering everything from high-end outdoor “glamping” (glamorous camping) sites with amenities like outdoor beds, bathrooms and pools to basic tent camping.

But like other elements of the sharing economy, the rules and regulations property owners must follow are murky.

A few of the properties are listed in cities like Poway and Encinitas, and the property owners there are likely breaking the law. For instance, Robert Manis, director of development services for Poway, said the city does not allow the use or occupancy of a trailer coach or RV on a residentially zoned lot.

“We do have provisions for storing an RV on a residential lot when the RV is owned by the property owner. But it is not allowed to be occupied,” Manis wrote in an email. “The use of an RV as described with Hipcamp is not allowed under the Poway Municipal Code.”

But most Hipcamp listings are in unincorporated communities governed by the county, where the rules aren’t as clear. There are no specific regulations related to home- or land-sharing, but property owners do have to meet the county’s building, zoning and other regulatory codes.

“Before determining what would be required to allow people to camp on a property, the county would look at each situation independently and evaluate the land use characteristics of the property to determine the applicable requirements,” county spokeswoman Jessica Northrup wrote in an email.

She said the county encourages property owners who want to rent out land to campers to contact the county first. Those already doing it could be violating building and zoning codes, Northrup said, especially people who’ve built decks or other structures without necessary permits. Not having access to bathrooms or water might also be a problem.

Another big potential issue with camping on private property: fire hazards. Property owners are responsible for making sure their roads are wide enough to fit fire trucks.

And just like with Airbnb hosts, Hipcamp property owners have to be careful when it comes to navigating disability access and race discrimination.

Ilana Friedman is a retired retail worker who recently opened up a nonprofit animal rescue at her property in Ramona. To help bring in income, she also listed her property on Hipcamp.

“We’ve had quite a few guests already,” she said. “It’s been kind of awesome. I’ve met amazing people.”

Campers at Friedman’s property get the added perk of being allowed to hang out with her rescue animals. She has a dozen horses, a mule, lots of donkeys, two pot-bellied pigs, a sheep, a lamb, two goats, a 100-pound tortoise and other animals, including an indoor chicken who suffered a stroke and now barks like a dog.

Friedman can rent out four spots at a time on her five acres. She said some guests keep to themselves while others want to get involved and help feed and take care of the animals.

She said she hasn’t talked to county officials about relevant regulations, because she didn’t know it was necessary; Hipcamp told her she didn’t have to do anything, she said, and sent out two young men once she signed up.

“They spent the night and they basically interviewed me and walked around the property with me and took a million pictures and then it went up on Hipcamp,” she said. “According to what Hipcamp said, everything was above board. I would never do anything that was not above board.”

Dawn Sardinas rents out her Ramona land on Hipcamp and rents a home on Airbnb. She did a few things to ensure she wasn’t breaking any rules, like get a business license and a food handler’s license. She said she also keeps an eye on what the San Diego City Council is doing in terms of regulating the home-sharing industry so she can be ready for potential future regulations.

“As far as I know, I’m compliant,” she said.

Hipcamp spokeswoman Annelise Poda said in an email that its company policy is to encourage property owners to navigate local rules and regulations themselves.

“Unfortunately, as a marketplace, we cannot advise our hosts on the laws and regulations in their areas specifically, as these truly vary from county to county and state to state,” Poda wrote. “Of course, we’re happy to do what we can to support you as you navigate this, but we solely require that our hosts are following these local laws and getting the necessary permits applicable to them.

She said Hipcamp is working with policy advisers so the company can better assist hosts in the future.

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