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News: 05/01/2009

Supervisors wade into vacation rental debate

At its April 21 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors wrestled with possible ways to regulate short-term vacation rentals in residential areas, in particular multi-bedroom homes which have prompted complaints about large parties and events.

A big crowd showed up for the meeting, with vacation rental owners and agencies asking for a chance to self-police, and neighbors of problem rentals arguing that rules about transient rentals need to be put on the books and enforced.

Currently, the county has no codes or standards regulating homes in residentially zoned areas that are turned into short-term vacation rentals. Other tourist destination areas have specific rules regarding vacation rentals (the City of Sonoma, the City of Napa, for example), and others essentially ban them altogether, such as Napa County and the City of St. Helena.

First District Supervisor Valerie Brown had asked that the issue be put on the agenda as an information item. Brown said that during the summer her office gets an average of one call a week about problems with vacation rentals in Sonoma Valley, and efforts to come up with solutions using existing laws having proven fruitless.

“I want people to be able to live in peace in a rural residential area,” said Brown. “If you have a vacation rental and are doing a good job, that’s great. But there needs to be something done on the enforcement end.”

County officials estimate there are over 1,000 vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, with 79 percent in the Fifth District (Russian River, coastal areas) and 14 percent in the First District (Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Rincon Valley).

Since the beginning of 2009, close to 50 new vacation rentals have registered with the county to pay the required bed tax (Transient Occupancy Tax, or “TOT”). It is estimated that in the coming months, another 200 single-family dwellings will be registering to pay the TOT.

In the county overall, 83 percent of the vacation rentals are managed by property management companies as opposed to individual owners. But in the First District, the number is about fifty-fifty.

In general, according to the county, problems tend to occur in vacation rentals handled solely by a homeowner, who may often live outside of the area and be unable to respond promptly to neighbors’ complaints.

At the April 21 meeting, Jennifer Barrett of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) laid out possible regulatory scenarios, including requiring vacation rentals to obtain a business license, or perhaps a use permit that could establish certain conditions, such as the number of beds and people allowed, limits on outdoor activities, quiet hours, etc.

Or, said Barrett, the county could establish an “overlay” zone on a particular area regulating vacation rentals. Barrett pointed out that much of the Russian River and coastal areas were built specifically as resort areas, so the concept of an overlay zone could set up different standards for different areas.

Additions to the county’s development code could be made to include vacation rentals specifically, said Barrett, but that process may be lengthy. Vacation rentals of six or more rooms could be considered a hotel as currently defined by the county, and only allowed in commercial districts. Barrett said that 14 vacation rental properties in Sonoma County currently advertise as having six or more bedrooms.

Barrett gave kudos to the vacation rental industry for being “very responsive” to the issues brought up by the county, by getting vacation rentals to sign up to pay the TOT, developing a code of conduct to be included in rental agreements, and being willing to aid the county in enforcement.

Ron Goldman, owner of vacation rentals in Schellville said a local organization has been formed, the Sonoma Valley Vacation Rental Homeowner Association, which is currently working on the code of conduct as well as trying to come up with other ways to regulate themselves.

“We want to clean our own act up, and ask for the opportunity to do so,” said Goldman. “You got our attention.”

Some of the supervisors were wary about setting layers of bureaucracy on an industry that brought in $2.2 million of TOT in fiscal year 2007-08.

The supervisors decided to create an Ad Hoc committee charged with exploring possible avenues for dealing with vacation rentals and coming up with an action plan.

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