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Vacation rental oversight remains problematic; further study underway

By Jay Gamel

The perennial conundrum of how to regulate short term rentals — vacation rentals — surfaced at a recent Sonoma County Board of Supervisors presentation, with county staff recommending business licenses rather than zoning permits, as many other counties and regions do, citing Marin County as an exemplary model.

The concerns regarding vacation rentals were exacerbated by the firestorms of 2017, 2018, and 2020, which destroyed thousands of homes throughout the county, hitting a market that has run short of housing, especially workforce and affordable housing, for decades. Supervisors placed a moratorium on new vacation rentals in 2020 and capped the total permits allowed countywide at just over 1,900. Today, there are 1,864 permits in the county.

The 2020 cap was prompted by the rapid increase in vacation rentals, which jumped from 1,335 in February 2018 to 1,904 countywide by June 20, 2021 43 percent increase in two and a half years. The county’s First District, represented by Supervisor Susan Gorin and including Sonoma Valley, has the most vacation rental licenses in the county at 846, followed by the Fifth District (Russian River) with 755.

A check of advertised vacation rentals found an additional 483 unpermitted rentals paying no Transient Occupancy Tax, which were turned over to the county assessor’s office for follow-up. The county hired a third-party company to use “web scraping” technology to compare homes posted for short-term rental on popular websites, such as Airbnb, to permit records to identify short-term rentals operating illegally.

Converting residential housing stock to short-term rentals has been the source of long-running neighborhood feuds, as some houses bring in noisy, disruptive party folk, while many others are happily occupied by quiet, peace-loving visitors who leave no bad feelings behind. The community impact of converting housing stock to shortterm rentals is unknown, but will be studied by Dr. Robert Eyler of Sonoma State University, according to Permit Sonoma planner Gary Helfrich, who spoke to county supervisors on July 20. His report is expected by September, when the board will review further suggestions for dealing with vacation rentals.

Supervisors first regulated vacation rentals in 2016 and allowed for a Vacation Rental Exclusion Combining District, called an X-Zone, for certain areas to “preserve housing stock, protect neighborhood character and avoid additional vacation rentals to areas with access limitations and high fire severity.” Staff recommended the board continue to deny vacation rental permits for high fire danger areas. “All the temporary wildfire recovery ordinances are expiring soon,” Helfrich said. “It appears that we didn’t anticipate how long the recovery period would be.” The 2020 caps expire on Aug. 6, 2022. Other suggestions include reducing permits in high fire severity and flood areas, evacuating vacation rentals at the first sign of fire danger, prohibiting vacation rentals on roads less than 20 feet wide, and prohibiting all outdoor fires.

“This is like Christmas, over and over,” Gorin said. “We’ve been working on vacation rentals for eight years. Let’s keep the moratoriums in place until we can work on additional exclusion zones.” A major issue generated by va- cation rentals is enforcement and notice to neighbors when homes are converted to vacation rentals. Under the current system, it can take more than 24 hours to even register a complaint about activity at a vacation rental. A suggestion to require informational signs on all rentals with contact numbers for complaints was questioned by operators and owners, fearing that signage would expose their properties to theft or vandalism. An alternative would be to send registered letters to neighbors with the contact information for complaints.

Permit holders generally opposed the ideas of signage and limiting stays to more than a single day. Homeowners voiced objections to “out-of-town investors turning houses into hotels.”

A survey of other counties shows a wide range of attitudes toward vacation rentals. Napa forbids them entirely, while many coastal regions have almost no restrictions other than payment of an occupancy tax.

The supervisors indicated a strong preference for the business license model, with an improved complaint system allowing for quicker responses.

“A business license model would enable us to be much more nimble and crack down in a quicker fashion,” Fourth District Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “Usually regulations are applied because of the lowest common denominator.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose Fifth District is highly impacted by vacation rentals, said, “We are at a tipping point where we are starting to lose a sense of community because of the concentration of vacation rentals. I appreciate the economic impact, but I would trade more families for less [tax money]. We are losing workforce housing, people are priced out, and most affordable housing is being snapped up, homes flipped, and residents pushed out.”

The supervisors asked Permit Sonoma staff for more information about automatically tracking complaints and responses, limiting vacation rental days, and expanding exclusionary zones. Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said the Eyler study will provide valuable information for future decisions. A public workshop will be held and the issue brought back to the board in October, with the expectation of having a full ordinance drafted by early 2022.