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Regs for vacation rentals shaping up

Moratorium approved; fractional homes to be reviewed

By Chris Rooney

In the ongoing effort to allow vacation rentals while also assuaging residents’ concerns, the Sonoma County Planning Commission found common ground on a number of rules at its May 5 meeting.

“We passed the resolution that staff had prepared, with a couple changes,” said Commissioner Caitlin Cornwall. “The most important was we had a majority for a 5 percent cap, not a 10 percent cap. Owners must be permanent residents of Sonoma County, must be actual people — not corporations — and can only have one vacation rental each. And no vacation rentals in R1zoned areas, which are the highestdensity residential areas [in the] unincorporated county. All of this only applies to new applications for vacation rentals.”

Permit Sonoma Policy Manager Bradley Dunn further explained the regulations as they pertain to residential areas. “As part of this action, the planning commission is also recommending that vacation rentals not be allowed in urban residential neighborhoods [R1 zoning]. Vacation rentals are already prohibited in R2 and R3 [residential zones]. Additionally, this change improves zoning code consistency with the Sonoma County General Plan policy that reads, ‘Avoid the loss of residential land in urban land-use designations for vacation or timeshare uses.’ Licensing and management of property rentals were also discussed, with steps made to advance new rules.

County staff will return to the planning commission in July with a proposal to rezone neighborhoods based on the commission’s recommendation. Dunn said county staff anticipates a Board of Supervisors hearing on Aug. 2.

County planner Gary Helfrich explained that the department had been reaching out to housing advocates, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, property managers, and employment agencies, since February for feedback.

It was determined that licensing and oversight were vital. Also, there was a desire to ensure those renting out houses via companies such as Airbnb are local owners and not corporations that buy multiple properties with the pure aim of renting them out seasonally instead of creating housing for residents.

Another popular idea was a 24-hour hotline so neighbors could quickly report rowdy renters.

Some ideas of governance, however, were deemed hard to enforce. For instance, staff looked into limiting guests at vacation rentals to the number of bedrooms in the house, as some renters create extra “sleeping rooms.” Helfrich said loopholes like this are difficult to regulate.

While the regulations are being fine-tuned, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a 45-day temporary moratorium on new vacation rental permits at its May 10 meeting. The urgency ordinance addresses a spike in vacation rental applications while Permit Sonoma works on its vacation rental ordinance.

“Since the March 17 planning commission meeting was announced, there has been an approxi- mately 500 percent increase in vacation rental permit applications received by Permit Sonoma,” Dunn said in a prepared statement. “Issuing numerous vacation rental permits in areas that may be subject to additional regulations would undermine the current planning effort to protect the public from the negative impacts of vacation rentals that are improperly sited, overconcentrated, or under-regulated.”

The moratorium applies to new vacation rental permits submitted after March 17. There are 200 permits pending, and 70 were filed before March 17. The remaining 130 permits are on hold but not disqualified.

The moratorium does not apply to existing vacation rentals, hosted rentals, rentals in the Coastal Zone, or any complete applications for new vacation rentals submitted prior to the moratorium.

The supervisors also unanimously approved Permit Sonoma’s request for $30,000 to pay for staff and a consultant to address fractional homeownership, a practice wherein companies buy homes and sell off shares, creating full-time, co-owned rental properties. San Francisco-based Pacaso has bought properties in Napa and, more recently, Sonoma County, to serve as fractional homeownership properties. A report will be produced by year’s end.