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County considers update to vacation rental ordinance

First of several workshops held at Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission May 26 meeting

By Jay Gamel

Permit Sonoma held the first in a series of public outreach workshops to receive input and recommendations to improve existing regulation of vacation rentals. The workshop took place on May 26 at the regular meeting of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC). Planner Gary Helfrich surveyed regulations in other jurisdictions, reviewed current practices, and listened to suggestions to augment or replace the county’s current vacation rental ordinance.

The rules were initially put into place to address growing neighborhood complaints of rowdy parties and loss of regular housing in rural areas. The county rules apply to whole-house rentals, not to room or second unit rentals where the owner or a manager is present.

The county stopped issuing vacation rental permits after wildfires in 2017 destroyed over 5,000 homes throughout the county. That moratorium was lifted in January for all the county’s unincorporated areas, except those in X exclusion zones, a few neighborhoods in the Russian River area, and one neighborhood on Theodore Lane near Sonoma that is nearly 50 percent saturated with whole-house vacation rentals.

Several people brought up the fractional ownership properties being purchased and sold in eighths by a hedge fund supported by Pacaso Properties, but that kind of ownership situation is not covered by the current ordinance.

“Our challenge is enforcement and developing better policies to improve neighborhood compatibility,” Helfrich said at the start, noting that, “off-street parking is a challenge to check.”

Complaints over the years also underscore a need for better noise enforcement mechanisms, Helfrich said. He also noted that “complaints happen at a difficult time, nights and weekends,” when there are no code enforcement people on duty.

Loopholes like rental agreements for over 30 days with refund policies that enable shorter rentals also need to be addressed. People operating vacation rentals without registering to pay Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT) have also been an issue, though the county is making an effort to track them down.

Vacation rentals are a substantial source of taxes, Helfrich told Commissioner Caitlin Cornwall, generating between $5 and $8 million a quarter. “I’m inclined to make money off these,” she said.

“The county has recovered $1.3 million in fines and unpaid TOT taxes,” Helfrich said. “People have been found occupying vacation rentals in X-zones. We have stopped them.” X-zones protect unincorporated neighborhoods that have either chosen not to allow vacation rentals, or that have been deemed inappropriate for short-term rentals by county supervisors. Kenwood is one of those neighborhoods; downtown Glen Ellen is another. Helfrich emphasized that “the goal is compliance, not funds. Fines are the last resort.”

Sonoma planners are looking at Marin County vacation rental rules as an example. “Their reporting scheme is a good model for effective enforcement.”

Placing signs in front of vacation rental properties is one option being considered. The sign would have the name and contact number for the vacation rental manager, the permit and business license number. The county would adopt a computerized voicemail system that would allow complaints to be “logged and forwarded with a time stamp” and would track follow-up action, including notifying the caller of what action was taken.

Josette Brosey Acar did not like the sign idea. “I’m concerned with having prominent signs on vacation rental homes, because there are gaps between renters of a few days. I think this will encourage criminals to find and break into vacation rental homes,” she said.

Caps for local areas of concentration have proved to be problematic, Helfrich noted. “Caps have been considered,” she said, but there are policy considerations that are complex and regional. “It takes a lot of fine-tuning to work well.” Rentals – from 4

Planning Commissioner Gregg Carr strongly urged the county to improve its enforcement and was pleased with the news that a fulltime enforcement officer would be added to Permit Sonoma staff. He questioned whether their time would be spent enforcing complaints directed to vacation rentals or winery events. “Both of them need weekend staffing,” Carr said. “[Supervisor] Gorin’s office took an active role in chasing down scofflaws in Sonoma Valley and was very effective in closing them down,” but the wildfires since 2017 “pushed them in another direction. Getting some dedicated weekend staff would help minimize illegal operations.”