Kenwood Press

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News: 02/01/2010

Opinions vary on vacation rental ordinance

There will be a vacation rental ordinance.

This is the message from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and county planners. It’s the details that are the tricky part.

At a public meeting on Jan. 26, a large group of vacation rental owners, rental managers, and disgruntled neighbors of some transient rentals gathered to give input on a draft ordinance.

The ordinance, which would amend the zoning code, would regulate single-family homes being used as vacation rentals in unincorporated Sonoma County, including Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and much of Sonoma Valley.

Unlike many other tourist destinations, including local cities such as Sonoma and Healdsburg, Sonoma County currently has no rules for vacation rentals.

There has been an increase of homeowners turning their properties into vacation rentals, and with that have come complaints from some neighbors about the appropriateness of such uses in residentially-zoned areas.

There are currently over 1,000 vacation rentals in Sonoma County that are registered to pay a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). Most of these are in the Russian River resort area, with about 14 percent in Supervisorial District 1, which includes Sonoma Valley.

A task force headed up by Supervisors Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo, who represent the districts with the most rentals, has been meeting off and on over the last year to develop specific standards and rules. That has resulted in the draft ordinance.

Any ordinance must eventually be signed off on by the county’s Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors. County officials say the goal is to try and have everything ready for the Board’s adoption in May, with the effective date of an ordinance starting 30 days later, sometime in June.

At the Jan. 26 meeting, people got a first look at the draft ordinance, which lays out standards that vacation rentals must abide by, ranging from the number of guests allowed to noise limits.

While most speakers felt that the ordinance was heading in the right direction, many had issues with some of the proposed language and details.

In the draft ordinance, the maximum number of people allowed overnight would be two persons per bedroom plus two additional persons per house. For example, a three-bedroom house would be allowed a maximum of eight people overnight. However, total guests allowed on a property would be twice the number of overnight guests (16 in the three-bedroom example), up to 25.

Neighbors of problem vacation rentals at the meeting said that these standards do not address the multi-bedroom rentals (five rooms plus, for example) and that allowing up to 25 people on a regular basis was too many. According to county officials, it is the large, multi-bedroom properties that have generated the most complaints in the county, mostly related to excessive noise and partying.

Jennifer Barrett, Deputy Director of the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), said that one option could be to prohibit rentals of a certain number of bedrooms. She said that current rules for bed and breakfasts do not allow facilities of over five bedrooms in a residential zone. Barrett said a room limit was one of the policy options PRMD staff will present to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Other policy issues that could be considered include requiring minimum lot sizes for rentals in certain zoning areas, or mandating minimum setbacks from neighbors.

Other standards for rentals detailed in the draft ordinance include specific requirements for on-site parking, noise limits, and rules dealing with outdoor activities, garbage, and septic systems. No amplified music would be allowed at any time, and a quiet time would be established after 10 p.m. Rental owners or managers must provide a 24-hour phone number to the county in case there are problems, and the owner or manager must be within a one-hour drive of the property.

If a property meets the standards, then they can get an over-the-counter zoning permit from PRMD (about $95), with no notice to neighbors required.

A use permit process would kick in if a property can’t meet the standards. There would be an evaluation by county staff, and possible conditions imposed to address neighborhood concerns. There would be no county hearing required unless there were protests by the neighbors. A base fee for that permit is $550, but the final cost would probably end up being higher.

The zoning permit and use permit would be one-time permits that run with the owner and expire when the property is sold.

Under the current draft rules, if a rental wants to have a special event or party with more than 25 people, a special event zoning permit would be required, and allowed only up to four times a year.

Many in the audience brought up the issue of whether or not the new rules were enforceable, especially given the fact that violations are difficult to prove and that most of the problems associated with vacation rentals occur at night and on weekends, when code enforcement staff aren’t working. Documentation of violations would usually have to be provided by the Sheriff’s Department, whose deputies are the ones responding to complaints about large crowds at rentals and loud partying.

PRMD’s Barrett said it is possible to impose an annual fee on vacation rentals, like they do in the city of Napa, which would go to pay for an extra code enforcement officer who would work on weekends.

If the county verifies three violations, the property owner would be subject to a hearing where the permit could be revoked. If a permit is revoked, the owner could not reapply for a vacation rental permit for at least one year.

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