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News: 07/01/2020

Supervisors lean toward cap on vacation rentals

As part of an ongoing discussion by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on COVID-19’s effects on the ability of residents to pay rent or stave off evictions from their rental housing, the board is mulling over a cap on the current number of vacation rentals.

For years there has been a conflict between the use of housing stock for vacation rentals compared to use for permanent residential housing. This conflict is exacerbated by the the fact that there is an inadequate housing supply in general in the county, in no small part due to the loss of some 6,000 housing units in recent wildfires.

At the June 25 Board of Supervisors meeting, Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said that currently there are 1,900 permitted vacation rentals in Sonoma County. Most of the vacation rentals are located in the west side of the county in supervisorial District 5, and in supervisorial District 1, which includes Sonoma Valley.

Wick cited a 2015 study that showed that authorization of vacation rentals outpaced new housing construction.

According to county planning staff, since 2018, 346 vacation rental permits were issued and 273 primary housing units were permitted.

“We’ve had significant disruption to the housing market,” said Wick. “The housing market is just starting to recover. We are seeing a better trend where if things hold true to this month’s pace, vacation rental permits will not have outstripped new construction, but the margin is not that great.”

As tools to deal with the vacation rental vs. housing issue, county staff put some options on the table for supervisors to consider.

These included a temporary moratorium on vacation rental permits, which, in order to justify, requires a legal finding by the board that vacation rentals are an immediate threat to public health and safety.

Other options discussed were a cap on vacation rentals of some kind, or an expanded use of vacation rental exclusion zones, known as X zones.

X zones involve an application process by neighborhoods to ban any new vacation rentals in a specific area. There are already a number of X zones in Sonoma Valley, including most of Kenwood and Glen Ellen.

County staff determined that a vacation rental moratorium would require substantial research and analysis before it could be brought back to the board.

Staff also concluded that establishing new X zones would be problematic. Past experiences with X zones have often been controversial and expensive for the residents who apply. In addition, X zones require a legislative rezoning of all the properties involved to add the X zone overlay on top of current zoning designations.

A cap on the existing number of vacation rental permits could apply countywide, by supervisorial district, by a specific area, or some combination of areas.

Existing permitted vacation rentals would be allowed to continue. However, according to the staff report prepared for the board, “When a property changes ownership or a permit is revoked, new permit capacity would be created under the maximum allowed.”

Supervisors leaned toward a cap of some kind, with some keenly aware of the issues some vacation rentals have brought to communities.

“My concern for quite some time has been we’re reaching the tipping point with vacation rentals in a number of neighborhoods, and causing a tremendous concern from folks in those neighborhoods,” said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “When neighborhoods become hotel areas, it becomes more of a commercial area than a residential area. So I think we need to look at a cap. I don’t know what the magic number is.”

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin supported a cap as well. She said that Sonoma Valley is, “screaming with vacation rentals.”

“We need to preserve the integrity and continuity of neighborhoods,” said Gorin.

County planning staff is going to look more into the details of a cap and come back to the board later this summer, perhaps starting with a countywide cap concept while coming up with data to determine areas in the county that have an overconcentration of vacation rentals.

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