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Planners pause on vacation rental rules

Feedback sought from special interest groups

By Chris Rooney

It’s going to be a bit longer before unincorporated areas of Sonoma County — including Kenwood and Glen Ellen — receive new regulations pertaining to properties used as vacation rentals. In what was a somewhat surprising move, the Sonoma County Planning Commission, at its March 17 meeting, decided to hold off on moving forward with a new ordinance until a broader spectrum of the population could weigh in.

The decision will “deepen our public participation,” explained Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma. “It is incumbent on us [to ensure] that those who have been excluded have a voice.”

Permit Sonoma has been engaging with the principal participants in discussions over vacation rentals, meaning primarily those who want to be able to use such services as Airbnb to rent what are usually investment properties to tourists and visitors, as well as residents who have complained of properties being mismanaged to the point of becoming nuisances. These groups have actively lobbied to get their way, sometimes generating emotional responses.

It appeared county staff had assembled regulations that brokered peace between the two sides and found compromise on a number of issues regarding vacation rentals, and it was generally expected that the planning commission would advance the new ordinances to the Board of Supervisors for adoption as soon as early April. That notion was turned on its head when the commission opted to hold off on endorsing new regulations until underrepresented segments of the community could be reached for feedback. Led primarily by Commissioner Belén Lopez-Grady, a plan was set to seek out additional comments.

Dunn explained that the normal process of governmental meetings doesn’t always provide easy access for the entire community and that special focus groups and meetings with special interest groups will take place to reach renters, low-income families, the homeless, and anyone “who could be negatively impacted by vacation rentals.”

Permit Sonoma staff will meet with relevant agencies, such as Legal Aid of Sonoma County, to try to reach residents who had not yet been involved in discussing the ordinances, he said.

“Public meetings are not the way these groups are best engaged,” Dunn said. “We’ll use different tactics to contact these folks.”

Permit Sonoma will have to move relatively quickly as some of the emergency ordinances set in place last year will expire in August, creating a several-month deadline to reach out to disengaged portions of the population and add their concerns to the new regulations for approval by county officials.

“Immediately following the fires, the Board of Supervisors adopted an urgency measure prohibiting new vacation rentals countywide in order to make more housing available to fire survivors,” stated a county staff report. This urgency ordinance, extended last December, expires in August.

Among the ideas packaged into the new ordinances is updating the licensing method used by owners of rental properties, with the focus on managing how many rental properties an individual can rent out as well as how many rental units can be located in a specific neighborhood or region. It was proposed that no more than 10 percent of single-family homes in a neighborhood could be used as rentals, with the idea of reigning in rentals that sap away much-needed housing for residents.

Permit Sonoma was also offering greater oversight into the industry, allowing neighbors of rental homes faster access to help if visitors become loud or pose traffic woes. A key element of this portion of the regulation was the creation of a 24-hour hotline, which drew support from all sides of the debate.

“We know we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” said county planner Gary Helfrich in a public forum last November. In July of last year, 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 impact on “neighborhood character.”

For the most part, the regulations are centered on establishing control. For instance, while business licenses are routinely extended every year without much concern, those seeking licenses for vacation rentals would have to endure some form of review. Those seeking specific licenses for rentals have “no expectation that renewal is automatic,” Helfrich said.

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

Some of the proposed restrictions are a reaction to a firm called Pacaso, which operates “fractional homeownerships.” The San Francisco- based company buys homes and allows up to eight buyers to share ownership. Pacaso drew attention when it began operating in Napa County, raising alarms in Sonoma Valley.