Kenwood Press

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News: 04/15/2009

Vacation rentals subject of Supervisors hearing

Hillhaven Estate, Greystone, Villa Kantara, Hammermark House, Pepperwood, Windhaven, Brambleberry, Casa Yerba.

The names evoke the rambling English countryside or sun-dappled Spanish estates. But, in reality, these are the names of just a few of the many vacation rentals in Sonoma Valley, an ever growing industry in Sonoma County that enriches government coffers by over $2 million a year in Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT).

At the same time the county has been enjoying these increasing funds, complaints by neighbors about some of these rentals have also been on the rise. Pointing out that the county has basically nothing in its codes and ordinances that regulates vacation rentals, residents have caught the attention of county officials, with a hearing on the subject scheduled for April 21, 9:30 a.m., in the chambers of the Board of Supervisors.

“The hearing is scheduled to provide the supervisors with an overview of what is happening in the county regarding rural residential rentals,” said First District Supervisor Valerie Brown. “I have met with many people in the First District whose quality of life has been severely changed due to rentals whose guests are out of control. I believe we need to adopt a policy that protects people who have bought their home believing that they will not suffer a party every weekend and a system needs to put in place for enforcement.”

Various stakeholders in this debate are gearing up for the meeting, ranging from individual owners of vacation rental properties, companies that manage vacation rentals, real estate interests, community organizations, homeowner groups, and neighbors of vacation rentals.

Proponents of vacation rentals argue that the vast majority of rentals do not receive complaints, are good neighbors, help to meet the needs of a growing segment of the tourist industry, and can provide an important stream of income for both the county and the homeowner. Also, they maintain, there is a secondary beneficial effect on local tourist oriented economies, such as wineries and restaurants.

Those calling for better oversight question the benefits of the increasing amount of conversions of single family homes to vacation rentals. They argue that owners of vacation rentals are usually absent when the home is rented, and that transient renters have little interest in the surrounding residential community, which can often lead to problems with parties, noise, garbage and parking. Vacation rentals are businesses, it is argued, and larger sites with numerous bedrooms basically function as unregulated hotels. Neighbors also cite the potential for vacation rentals situated in neighborhoods to decrease property values of surrounding homes.

In any event, vacation rentals can be lucrative, both for the owner and the county. There are no permit requirements for vacation rentals, but Sonoma County does require them to sign up and pay the nine percent bed tax (the TOT). (County officials have long suspected that a number of residences being used as vacation rentals do not pay the TOT, but the county does not have the manpower to ferret out the transgressors.)

In the 2007-08 fiscal year, a total of $2.2 million in TOT money was paid to the county from single-family residential vacation rentals in the unincorporated areas. In District 1, which includes Sonoma Valley, the share of that total was $291,000 from 144 rentals. The vast majority of TOT comes from District 5 ($1.69 million), which includes the Russian River, Bodega Bay area, and Sea Ranch.

In Sonoma Valley, the number of rooms and prices vary widely, but one large Kenwood rental had $89,400 in taxable receipts in calendar year 2008, another $56,621, and yet another $88,150.

While not all vacation rentals generate these kinds of numbers, there is significant money involved in the industry, so it is not surprising that the topic of regulating vacation rentals has generated a lot of interest.

Any approach taken by the Board of Supervisors is complicated by the fact that Sonoma County has diverse areas where vacation rentals are sited, ranging from the resort beach areas of Sea Ranch to Guerneville to residential areas of Sonoma Valley.

Rules and ordinances for vacation rentals in popular tourist areas are nothing new, with jurisdictions throughout California implementing an array of regulatory tools.

Some areas, like Napa County, the City of Carmel, City of St Helena, and the City of Yountville, essentially ban vacation rentals in single family dwellings altogether.

Other areas, such as the City of Sonoma, require use permits and business licenses.

Some jurisdictions limit the number of bedrooms allowed in a vacation rental as well as the number of people that can stay in a bedroom. Others limit vacation rentals to certain zoning areas, keeping them out of certain residentially zoned areas. A number of areas require that vacation rentals abide by health and safety codes, and that there be someone – either a property management agency or an individual – who can be reached on a 24-hour basis in case there is a problem.

John Curatto, a Sobre Vista Rd. resident who, along with his neighbors, has had a number of problems with two multi-bedroom vacation rentals on his road, said he understands that it’s impractical for the county to ban vacation rentals altogether. But, he said, “Residential areas in Sonoma Valley where people live full time, go to work, go to school – this is not the proper place.”

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