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County supervisors adopt vacation-rentals ordinance

New rules protect residential zones throughout the county

By Chris Rooney

If your retirement plans rely heavily on renting houses to tourists, then it’s time to schedule a meeting with your financial consultant. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adopted rules that more or less side with those who want to preserve neighborhood character and curtail the cottage industry of vacation rentals, particularly in Sonoma Valley.

“Sonoma Valley is a special place to live — and visit,” said First District Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin. “That sums up the continuing pressure for those trying to afford to rent or buy a home in Sonoma Valley, when there are many from outside the Valley interested in purchasing a home to visit occasionally or retire eventually. Many wish to finance that purchase by renting the home out as a short-term rental. There is simply not enough housing supply in the Valley to achieve balance for those two goals.”

Gorin felt she successfully continued the efforts of Valerie Brown, her predecessor on the board, who worked on this issue about a decade ago.

“I was successful years ago in establishing vacation rental exclusion zones on most, if not all, properties zoned R-1 (low-density residential). And we included some rural residential homes surrounding those areas. But the ‘water-balloon effect’ occurred in some areas immediately outside of those exclusion zones,” Gorin said. “I will be working with the Municipal Advisory Councils and Permit Sonoma over the next few months to determine what exclusion zones need to be expanded slightly in Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and the Springs, and looking at other areas in the county with overconcentration.”

The supervisors took up the issue at their Aug. 2 meeting, following a series of public forums and sessions led by the Sonoma County Planning Commission. With a 4-0 vote, the board approved a series of updates to the Vacation Rental Ordinance, including a prohibition on new vacation rentals in R-1-zoned areas and placing caps on vacation rentals in areas of concentration, effectively reducing the number of vacation rentals over time, as the permits would cease upon sale of the properties. In other words, if a property sells, the new owner will not automatically inherit a rental permit.

The supervisors also established restrictions on corporate ownership of vacation rentals and voted to restrict granting of future vacation rental permits to “natural persons” or trusts, rather than corporate entities. Individuals or trusts may only hold one vacation rental permit at a time.

Existing vacation rentals will not be affected by the ownership or zoning changes voted on today.

As the coastal region (Bodega Bay) has its own relationship with vacation rentals, the board voted to include the Local Coastal Plan in the county’s Vacation Rental Program, requiring vacation rental licenses for those in the Coastal Zone. Any new requirements for the vacation rental program in the Coastal Zone will need to be certified by the California Coastal Commission.

Another topic of debate was a year-long moratorium on vacation rental permits. Some thought it would be written off when the new regulations were enacted, but that’s not the case.

“The moratorium on new vacation rental permit applications that has been in place since May 10 is set to continue, potentially through May 9, 2023,” according to a press statement from Bradley Dunn, Permit Sonoma Policy Manager. “The Board of Supervisors also gave staff direction to come back with a separate ordinance addressing new licensing procedures for new vacation rentals, including increasing penalties for property owners who violate the vacation rental guidelines.”

According to Dunn’s statement, “Vacation rentals are defined as the rental of a private residence for periods of 30 days or less. Vacation rentals do not include bed-and-breakfast inns or hosted rentals permitted in accordance with the Sonoma County Code for B& Bs, and hosted rentals or occasional home exchanges that are not otherwise subject to the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT).”

“It’s clear that although existing vacation-rental (VR) permit holders can continue to rent their homes out for short-term rentals, even in the exclusion zones, all existing permit holders and new VR permit holders will need to apply for the VR business license and comply with new requirements,” said Gorin. “The 24/7 hotline will enable Permit Sonoma to track compliance on capacity, noise, etc., and irresponsible managers [and] owners may face stiff fines and potential revocation of permits for noncompliance.”

Gorin is referencing a 24-hour hotline that would allow neighbors to receive an immediate response if a renter is being noisy or otherwise problematic. This idea was popular with both sides of the debate, as it would help assuage the concerns of neighbors of a rental unit in a timely fashion and would also hold accountable the owner or manager of a property causing disruption in a neighborhood. Some residents who live near vacation rentals have complained that visitors are sometimes loud and disruptive, and also disregard parking and garbage regulations. Rude behavior, in short, has been one of the primary complaints filed by residents against tourists who are visiting just long enough for a fun time and don’t have any obligation to be good stewards.

Essentially, the approved regulations will prevent the approval of new vacation rentals in areas considered to have an insufficient density of residential housing, including parts of the unincorporated communities of Geyserville, Glen Ellen, Graton, and Guerneville.

The ordinance also restricts who can hold a vacation rental. Individual people or trusts can hold only one permit at a time, while corporate entities are barred from holding new rental permits, according to the county. The restriction on permits is aimed at corporations that purchase properties for the sole purpose of renting them out.

The updates do not apply to existing vacation rental properties, or those who hold valid permits, according to the county.

For more than two years, county officials have been toiling over regulations for vacation rentals, often private residences reserved via platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo for periods of 30 days or fewer.

The county approved regulations for vacation rentals in 2010 and revised them in 2016. In 2020, the board placed a cap on vacation rentals in the first and fifth supervisorial districts, which include the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Sonoma, and the county’s coastline.

A moratorium has been in place since May on the approval of new vacation rental applications after Permit Sonoma, the county’s land use and development agency, saw a spike in applications after the county Planning Commission voted on March 17 to extend its public hearing on then-potential vacation rental regulations.

Permit Sonoma reported staff normally receive and processes roughly 10 vacation rental applications per month, but that had risen to 50 per month after the mid-March Planning Commission meeting.

At its May 10 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a temporary moratorium on the approval of permits submitted after March 17, allowing Permit Sonoma to catch up on the agency’s application backlog and giving the county time to draft and approve the updated regulatory package.

According to county officials, the moratorium may remain in place through May 9, 2023, and could be extended an additional year.

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