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New regulations for vacation rentals discussed

Licensing and rule enforcement reviewed

By Chris Rooney

County officials led a Nov. 18 workshop focusing on vacation rentals and ongoing efforts to find compromise between residents weary of noisy visitors and those trying to generate income through rental of their property.

Hosted by Permit Sonoma, the online forum drew approximately 100 participants and provided county planning commissioners with a review of directives proposed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. It was purely a workshop, no action was taken. Another workshop will take place in January — providing time for more public input.

“We know we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” said county planner Gary Helfrich.

In July, the supervisors asked Permit Sonoma staff to address six topics: public outreach, impact on the housing market, zoning and permitting, improved reporting and enforcement, improved parking, and how vacation rentals impact “neighborhood character.”

One idea floated before the panel was distinguishing between a business license and a vacation rental license. Helfrich explained that the looser vacation rental license would better be able to address neighbors’ concerns, such as loud parties, garbage overflow, and too many vehicles parked at rental properties.

Unlike business licenses, which are mostly an annual formality, Helfrich said those seeking specific licenses for rentals have “no expectation that renewal is automatic.”

Instead, he explained, property renters would be subject to performance reviews, which would also mean stronger supervision. Property managers would be held responsible for violations or risk losing their certification. One idea being considered was denying license renewals if owners had more than three violations over 12 months.

The different form of permitting would not cost property renters any additional financial outlay, nor would it add to the workload of county staffers, Helfrich said.

The size and scope of rentals was analyzed, with a proposed rule that just one license could be allowed per parcel and that “no more than two vacation rental licenses shall be issued simultaneously to an individual,” the staff report stated.

These restrictions seemed to stem from concerns about Pacaso, which operates “fractional homeownerships.” The San Francisco-based firm buys homes and allows up to eight buyers to share ownership of dwellings that then serve as vacation homes. Pacaso drew attention for this practice in Napa County, generating concern in Sonoma Valley that the same could happen in local neighborhoods. So far, Pacaso’s footprint in Sonoma County is just two or three homes.

Limiting rentals to 12 people (instead of the current 18) was proposed, with Helfrich noting that “18 is different from a family” rental. Similarly, there was a call to both reduce the number of cars allowed at each rental and for owners to ensure parking is not on public roadways and is safe.

Several workshop attendees voiced concern, sometimes outrage, at the feeling of futility when a rental group was particularly noisy. More than one caller said renters were belligerent, sometimes swearing at neighbors and threatening them if asked to tone it down.

A proposal that seemed to generate unanimous approval was the creation of a 24-hour hotline, but some still felt there was a need to allow law enforcement more leeway to crack down on violators.