Kenwood Press

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News: 11/01/2008

Transient rentals causing a stir

The proliferation of short-term vacation rentals in Sonoma Valley and other parts of unincorporated Sonoma County has given rise to an increased number of neighbor complaints in residential areas, prompting increased scrutiny by county officials.

Ben Neuman, Code Enforcement Manager for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, said that his department has received an increase in general complaints about vacation rentals’ impact on neighborhoods, such as increased noise, garbage and parking problems. But, said Neuman, there is currently little in county codes that deal with the operations of transient rentals out of single-family residences.

“It’s a large industry that is substantially not regulated in unincorporated Sonoma County,” said Neuman,

Recently, though, code enforcement officials have increased their ability to deal with what they say are rental properties that are frequently used by renters for large gatherings of people, parties and events.

In September, two Sonoma Valley property owners were cited and fined for their renters having unlawful events, one property on Kenilworth Rd. in Kenwood, and one on Sobre Vista Rd., off of Arnold Dr., just south of Glen Ellen. Earlier this year the two property owners had been told by Code Enforcement that large gatherings of 35 people or more were prohibited.

Neighbors of both properties say that they have had numerous problems, including noise and traffic all hours of the night, causing a fundamental change in the character of their neighborhoods.

The Kenilworth Rd. property is listed on a vacation rental website as Solisombra, a “luxury hideaway” that sleeps up to 12, and during high season charges $1,400 per night with a four-night minimum.

Richard Koretz, a Kenilworth Rd. neighbor, said party problems at the property compelled him to install a security camera so that that he could provide evidence to Code Enforcement of the number of people entering the property.

In May, video shows fifty cars of teenagers entering the property, with more cars forced to park outside along one-lane Kenilworth Rd. As they wait to enter the gated property, teens are seen drinking and flicking cigarette butts into the brush. In the September incident for which the property owner was fined, 10-12 cars can be seen entering the property, along with small tour buses and a limousine.

The property owner, San Francisco resident William Triggs, said that almost all of his renters follow the rules and act as good neighbors. When he found out about what was going on at the May teenage party, Triggs said he drove up from San Francisco right away and had them thrown off the property.

Speaking of vacation rentals in general, Triggs said that, “My experience is that the vast majority of the landlords are responsible people acting in good faith,” and that many of the potential issues could be nipped in the bud by landlords and neighbors working together.

Over on Sobre Vista Rd., neighbors of this rural residential neighborhood say that there are two problem vacation rental properties, one of which was cited for a Sept. 7 event that was determined to have 35 or more people. The property is the former Spreckels family estate and is advertised online as being able to sleep up to 20, with rental fees ranging from $1,000 to $2,900 a night.

John Curotto, a neighbor, said the property is basically functioning like a commercial hotel in a residential area.

“They don’t respect the environment or the neighborhood,” said Curotto, who, along with other neighbors, has complained about the noise and traffic associated with the property.

Kelly Connors, one of the owners of the cited property, said he is being proactive and responding to the county requirements regarding events. Kelly said he will be installing noise measuring devices to measure noise against allowable standards.

“My job is to make sure people are keeping it down, and keeping it quiet,” said Connors.

It was Curotto and his neighbors who first went to Supervisor Valerie Brown to see if there could be some way to address the problem of vacation rentals having events. The result was a resolution last February from the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) saying that permits would be required if residential properties used as vacation rentals plan on having an event of 35 or more people.

Also, there is increased communication and coordination between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies and Code Enforcement regarding vacation rentals having parties. It is usually the deputies that are first called out to a site after a complaint, and Code Enforcement depends on their reports to determine if there are violations or not.

Brown said that she wants to see if the recent citations and fines by the county are effective before looking at further steps for dealing with vacation rentals.

“People have a right to a rural existence,” said Brown, “And should have an expectation that rentals should not take over that rural existence.”

For one thing, Brown said, the county needs to develop a noise ordinance, which could provide another tool for Code Enforcement.

Though the county essentially does not regulate vacation rentals, they do collect a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) of nine percent of the rate charged each guest. Owners of vacation rentals are supposed to register with the county and pay TOT funds quarterly.

The county enjoys significant revenue from single-family residences in unincorporated areas used as transient rentals, $1.9 million in fiscal year 2006-2007, and $2.2 million in fiscal year 2007-2008.

According to the Sonoma County Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector office, there are a total of 1,038 registered residences used as vacation rentals, the vast majority in Supervisorial District Five which includes Guerneville and Bodega Bay.

In Supervisorial District 1, which includes Sonoma Valley, there are 144 registered residences.

County finance officials recognize, from perusing online the large numbers of vacation rental listings, their numbers do not reflect many rentals that are not registered. But officials find it difficult to bring them into TOT compliance since listings do not show addresses, just general locations.

While Koretz and Curotto appreciate the recent enforcement on transient rentals having events, they feel the fines aren’t enough of a hammer, and that the county should go farther, perhaps even requiring permits and/or developing a specific vacation rental ordinance.

Other destination areas like Sonoma County handle the issue of vacation rentals differently.

The City of Sonoma, for example, has a specific ordinance for vacation rentals. The ordinance allows rentals in certain zoning areas, and requires a business license and a use permit.

Napa County essentially forbids vacation rentals in residential areas, and is currently in the process of improving their zoning ordinance to address illegal vacation rentals. They are also beefing up code enforcement and initiating a public outreach campaign to let home-owners know it’s illegal to rent their homes out for less than 30 days.

The City of Napa, in response to increasing complaints about vacation rentals in residentially zoned districts, is currently drafting new rules that will soon be put before the Napa City Council.

Tourist areas across California, such as Lake Tahoe, San Luis Obispo County, and Carmel, also have specific rules dealing with vacation rentals.

“What’s Sonoma County waiting for?” asked Koretz.

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