SVCAC gives nod to new vacation rental exclusion zone
It’s not the most likely site for this kind of neighborhood kerfuffle – a small, gated community of 10-acre luxury home sites on the east side of Sonoma Mountain, but 15 out of 32 property owners have asked the county to exclude future vacation rental permits in the area.
After listening to arguments pro and con for two hours on Sept. 27, six of the 10 commissioners present on the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC) voted to support the exclusion zone proposal.
The proposed exclusion zone encompasses 24 developed and eight undeveloped parcels on Morningside Mountain Road, Vigilante Road and Oso Trail off of Arnold Drive and Madrone Road. According to Susan Costello, a Morningside Mountain Road resident and supporter of the application, 15 homeowners are for it, four are against it, and five “abstained.” The remaining owners could not be reached. The 15 shared the cost of the $8,400 county application fee.
“We’d like to keep the neighborhood like it is,” Barry Swain told the Commissioners. Swain signed the application and presented the case for the request. He cited fire danger, winding, narrow roads, and a desire to keep the neighborhood character.
Ali Tabibian and Ann Akichika live on Morningside and had the only vacation rental permit in the area until recently, when a second permit was approved on Oso Road. While he was not present at the meeting, Tabibian said “we aren’t doing anything that changes the historical use of the neighborhood,” pointing out that the Swains formerly ran a bed and breakfast for many years. He also found at least one other property, now for sale, that has been listed for $1,000 a night vacation rentals at HomeAway.com and has a 2011 vacation rental application on file.
“They don’t appreciate it,” Betty Shearer said of vacation renters. “Things could happen when you have unfamiliar people in the neighborhood.”
Julie Oleson observed that navigating the narrow and sometimes steep roads could be tricky. “I found fewer than four turnouts along a two mile stretch of road,” she said.
“This resolution affects future generations and the price of my property,” Morningside resident Gerry Brinton said, clearly not in favor of the application.
Costello, however, was adamant about preserving the residential nature of the area.
“I bought into a residential area,” she said. “Now it’s turning into commercial property with an eye to ROI (return on investment).” Costello is a private mortgage broker who said some clients have to work out how to generate enough income to even get a mortgage. Her concerns about vacation rentals depleting residential inventories extend to the whole county.
If the exclusion zone is approved by the county, existing permits will be grandfathered in, but will expire on sale or transfer of ownership in the future. “Hosted” vacation rentals will still be permitted. Hosted rentals require the owner to live on the premises and permit only two guests at a time, and have a lot of other conditions attached.
Brett Cooper, who lives next door to the Tabibian property, has no problem with his neighbors.
“Sonoma County has a three strikes policy,” Cooper said in a phone interview. “If a neighbor does get noisy, he gets the permit pulled. Our next door neighbor has done this for six years with no problems.” Cooper thinks an exclusion zone is more appropriate for denser neighborhoods. Those points were discussed at the Wednesday SVCAC meeting.
There is no homeowners association and no restrictive agreements in place, just a road committee that determines what needs to be done and notifies owners. Financial contributions are established by a pre-set formula. There is a gate at the main entrance to the area, and many of the homes have individual driveway gates.
Commissioner Sean Bellach observed that depletion of residential housing stock – a factor in considering exclusion zones – was not a problem in this case, given the small number and large size of the properties. However, Sonoma City Councilwoman Amy Harrington, an ex-officio member of the Commission, said a principal concern of many people is the “intensified commercial use” of what has traditionally been considered residential property.
Enough commissioners supported the idea that commercial uses are not appropriate in residential neighborhoods to carry the motion.
In Sonoma’s vibrant, tourism-fueled economy, the explosion of commercial wine operations and vacation rentals in rural areas has roiled formerly sleepy communities to the point that two of the county supervisors’ main goals in 2017 are 1) developing policies for wineries and agricultural promotion events “to balance benefits to tourism and economic development with neighborhood compatibility,” and 2) to update the vacation rental ordinance “to support County tourism while ensuring neighborhood compatibility and protecting the general welfare of residents.”
Nothing much has been accomplished in defining events and tasting rooms, but a significant development in vacation rental control happened in May of 2016, with the approval of an overlay zoning excluding future vacation rentals from specific unincorporated areas in Sonoma Valley and the north county. Countywide, over 6,000 parcels were covered, including 600 parcels in Glen Ellen and 300 in Kenwood.
Slattery Road residents – who have a wide diversity of zoning – asked a year later to be included, and received an exclusion overlay. The Morningside Mountain Road group is the second request in the area.
The process of asking for an exclusion zone is pretty straightforward, according to county planner Lisa Posternak.
“Neighbors in a single geographical area or neighborhood may file together as a single application, thereby reducing their costs, even if not all residents of the area agree about rezoning the neighborhood,” she replied to an email question. “All property owners would receive notice by mail of the request unless the number of properties affected exceeds 1,000, in which case the law requires placement of a 1/8 page advertisement in a local newspaper. The current cost to apply for a rezoning is about $8,400.”
Pat Gilardi, Supervisor Susan Gorin’s district manager, said the zone change process includes hearings before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. The public can comment during the public comment period and at public hearings. The Planning Commission will make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, and the Board makes the final decision and may consider the amount of support for, or opposition to, the proposed Zone Change.
The decision to grant an exclusion zone will be based on several factors, including neighborhood character, fire danger, road quality, topography, or other factors the Board of Supervisors find relevant.
No date for a future hearing has been set.