The Kenwood Press
News: 02/15/2018

Moratorium is over - what’s next for vacation rentals?

Alec Peters

Now that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has lifted its wildfire-related ban on new short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated areas, county planning staff is now developing a proposal that would include looking at excluding any new vacation rentals in burn areas.

Starting Feb. 5, the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) started accepting new vacation rental permits again, according to its website. But that may change somewhat in the future as supervisors grapple with a pre-existing housing crisis that was exacerbated by the loss of 5,100 housing units countywide in the fires.

Last Oct. 24 the board adopted an urgency ordinance enacting the vacation rental moratorium for 45 days. That ban was extended for 60 days in early December.

At its Jan. 23 meeting, the majority of the board, by a 3-1 vote (First District Supervisor Susan Gorin being the only nay vote) approved ending the moratorium, but also directed PRMD staff to come back to the board with some new ideas.

Tennis Wick, PRMD’s executive director, said he would come back with a plan in either February or March that considers a limited-term imposition of what are known as exclusion zones (or “X” zones in county planning parlance) in burned-out neighborhoods.

In addition, Wick said that staff would identify other geographic areas in the county, not necessarily in burn zones, where supervisors might see the need for more exclusion areas.

The county has used X exclusion zones since the board beefed up the county’s vacation rental ordinance in 2016. X zones forbid new vacation rentals in select neighborhoods in the county. Many of these are in Sonoma Valley, including in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and the Springs. X zones were also imposed at the time in other valley areas such as Diamond A Agua Caliente Knolls, and Foothill Ranch.

Properties that already had vacation rental permits were not affected by the new X zones.

Sonoma County’s First District, which includes Sonoma Valley, has the most permitted vacation rentals in the county.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, a strong supporter of limits on vacation rentals, said she supports the direction PRMD staff is going regarding the burn zones.

She said at the Jan. 23 meeting she is worried that speculators are already buying properties in burned areas with the specific purpose of turning them into vacation rentals.

“I’m concerned about investors coming in, purchasing lots, and building homes that are not in the character of the previous neighborhood,” said Gorin.

Supervisor James Gore of the county’s Fourth District, said he has heard of “multiple” reports of investors buying burned homes and properties for vacation rentals, and not for permanent housing.

Gorin said she’d like to see X zones put on these areas for at least five years, citing the length of time it will most likely take for fire victims to rebuild their residences. Gorin said PRMD could revisit any new X zones in two to three years to evaluate the rate of building and whether the term of any exclusion zone should be lengthened or shortened.

Gorin said she was eager to work with PRMD staff to look at extending the X zones that were established in 2016 in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, as well as other roads in the area such as Lawndale, Bristol, and Schultz roads.

When X zones were mapped out two years ago in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, Gorin said the process was somewhat arbitrary.

“Now, in probably not unanticipated ways,” said Gorin, “the pressure of vacation rentals has just moved to that next street.”

Since the board’s 2016 initial approval of select X zones, some county residents have initiated the process for establishing exclusion zones in their own neighborhoods, including Slattery Road off of Warm Springs Road.

Most recently, the Planning Commission recommended approval for an X zone on parcels encompassing Morningside Mountain Drive, Vigilante Road, Oso Trail, Heaven Hill Road, Sobre Vista Road, High Grove Lane, and Springfield Road, all near the edge of Glen Ellen. The Board of Supervisors still must give its OK.

At the Jan. 23 board meeting there was a brief discussion about the $10,000 cost it takes for neighborhoods to go through the X zone planning process, and perhaps some kind of fee waiver might be considered.

“I do think it’s unfair to ask each street, each block, each neighborhood to pony up 10k to maintain the quality of life and our housing stock for the community,” said Gorin.

In general, to qualify for an X exclusion zone, parcels must meet a list of criteria, including whether there is inadequate road access or off street parking, if vacation rentals would be detrimental to the residential character of the neighborhood, if housing stock needs to be protected from visitor-serving uses, or there is a significant fire hazard due to topography, access, or vegetation.