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News: 04/15/2018

Second neighborhood X-zone approved on split vote

Board of Supervisors divided on the concept of vacation rentals

The issue of vacation rentals continues to dog Sonoma County supervisors two years after passing an ordinance that excluded vacation rental permits for over 6,000 lots in the Sonoma Valley and north Sonoma County, and opened the door for individual communities to apply for the unique zoning exclusion called an “X-zone.”

Initially, 15 property owners on Morningside Mountain Drive and associated roads in Glen Ellen sought protection for 32 parcels served by those roads. After looking at the wider area, the county planning agency – Permit Sonoma – added another 32 nearby parcels they felt met the same criteria, even though none of those owners had specifically asked for it.

At the April 3 hearing, three supervisors, Susan Gorin (first district), James Gore (fourth district), and Lynda Hopkins (fifth district), approved the original application (Area A). All of them rejected the additional 32 properties (Area B), all of which are accessed through Sobre Vista Road. At the end of the day, they were concerned about how those owners were given notice and their opportunity to participate in the deliberations.

The Morningside Mountain X-zone is only the second one approved under the 2016 ordinance. Residents of Slattery Road obtained the first X-zone vacation rental exclusion just two weeks ago. Both applications were filed in 2016. The Slattery application cost over $11,000 and the Morningside Mountain request is expected to cost over $16,000.

“I’m glad we prevailed,” Morningside spokesman Bob Dusté said afterward. “But it’s clearly an emotional topic. There are strong feelings on both sides. The X-zones were created for a reason, but (the Supervisors) are still trying to feel their way through. A couple of the supervisors were advocating for changing the rules while the hearing was underway.”

In May of 2016, the supervisors approved X-zones for six areas of the county, including Kenwood, Glen Ellen, the Springs area, Fitch Mountain and a handful of smaller areas.

Under the X-zone ordinance, neighborhoods can petition to have vacation rental permits prohibited if they meet at least one of six criteria: inadequate road access, vacation rental concentrations impacting the “residential character” of the neighborhood, housing stock needing to be protected, significant fire hazards, and anything else the supervisors decide is relevant.

The loss of over 5,000 homes in the October 2017 firestorm exacerbated the county’s decades-long housing deficiencies, prompting the supervisors to temporarily ban new vacation rental permits until March, when they let the ban expire.

The 32 properties in the new X-zone are mostly large lots behind private gates and accessed through private roads that are narrow and dangerous to drive at night. They are located on Morningside Mountain Drive, Vigilante Drive and Oso Trail. There are several vacation rentals already there, and at least 15 of the 32 residents feel that the chances of future acquisitions and construction will be for commercial reasons.

“We have 12.5 percent of vacation rentals,” Dusté said. “They aren’t going to disappear, and we are OK with that. People who continue to buy property for vacation rentals will change the character of the neighborhood where most of us have lived for decades.”

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin echoed that thought when summing up her support for the application.

“I think the neighbors came to me because they are concerned about the trend of property sales. Properties are purchased by speculators who want them to be specifically owned as investments. What does that do to neighborhood fabric?”

The 32 Area B parcels are on Sobre Vista Road, Sobre Vista Lane, Heaven Hill Road, Pipeline Road, Katie Lane, and Springhill Road.

“We have no problem with [not including Area B],” Dusté said. “That wasn’t the neighborhood we were advocating for. We didn’t reach out to them, though several came to us. We didn’t solicit them.”

Barry Swain, the Morningside Mountain Road resident who signed the original application, is concerned that a last minute change by the county administrator’s office will delay when the X-zone takes effect by 60 days, instead of the normal 30-day waiting period. Since part of the entire application was rejected, county counsel suggested it needed to be brought back for a Consent Calendar vote in 30 days and become effective 30 days after that.

Once the X-zone gets the final OK, existing vacation rental permits will remain in effect as long as the property does not change hands. After that, the permit will be extinguished and not allowed to be renewed or reissued. This raises questions about the effect of a vacation rental permit on property values.

All of the supervisors proclaimed dismay at the cost and length of these applications.

“Absolutely, the cost to take out a vacation rental permit is ridiculously inexpensive and seems to require little staff time,” Gorin said.

“And yet, we know that the actions in dispensing permits often have significant impacts on the neighbors around them.

“I will press Permit Sonoma for an opportunity for the Board to discuss the process and the cost of exclusion zones. The next opportunity will come when Permit Sonoma brings forward its work plan so that I can lobby the board to include work to consider and permit more vacation rental exclusion zones in the next year in all of the districts.”


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