County kicks off review of vacation rental rules
If the recent Sonoma Valley forum on tweaking current regulations on vacation rentals is any indication, the ongoing conversations will be loud and passionate.
Over 100 people crammed into Booker Hall at La Luz Center in Sonoma on Feb. 9, ostensibly to visit with county planning staff at different stations to get a variety of information on vacation rentals – what are the rules, where are the county-approved rentals, which ones are illegal, how to complain, give input on how to change the existing vacation rental ordinance, etc.
But before that started, many in the audience wanted to make sure county staff heard them loud and clear about what they said were the negative impacts of transient rentals in residential communities.
Between 2011 and Jan. 2015 more than 130 residences between Los Alamos and Agua Caliente roads applied for a permit to operate as a vacation rental, according to data from Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department. The majority are clustered in the Glen Ellen and Kenwood villages. This doesn’t include unpermitted vacation rentals in those areas, often found on sites like AirBnB or vrbo.com.
“How did residential neighborhoods become commercial neighborhoods?” asked Glen Ellen resident Stephen Brett, who said his Hill Road area has become inundated with vacation rentals accompanied by noise, parties, and a general disruption of the community. “They’re businesses,” said Brett, who likened his situation to feeling sometimes that he’s on Coney Island.
Others spoke of the loss of housing stock, safety and parking issues, lack of enforcement of current rules, neighborhood compatibility, and the creation of “zombie neighborhoods” where there are fewer and fewer full time residents.
Gina Cuclis of Boyes Hot Springs, said rentals are near her home, many days sitting empty.
“It’s a myth that vacation rentals are an economic boon,” said Cuclis. “What we do get is a loss of human capital that cares about the community, who vote, who send their kids to school.”
There were some at the meeting who owned vacation rentals who said that they followed the rules, vetted renters carefully, and respected their neighbors, and cautioned not to paint a broad brush over all vacation rentals.
Sonoma County has 774 vacation rentals that have gone through the process with the county to apply for and receive a vacation rental permit, and pay the county’s bed tax, known as the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT).
There are many other unpermitted vacation rentals that operate illegally, a problem the county is trying to get a handle on. Last September, a county study estimated that over half of the Sonoma County vacation rental properties listed on the website AirBnB are not registered with the county.
According to a county list of rentals with permits, as of early February there are 43 rentals listed in Kenwood, 88 in Glen Ellen, 73 in the Agua Caliente area, and 76 in Sonoma outside of the Sonoma city limits. The majority of the rest of the rentals in the county are found in areas like Monte Rio, Guerneville, Healdsburg and Geyserville.
The current vacation rental ordinance went into effect in January of 2011 and allows, with a permit from the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), rentals with up to five guest rooms in most agricultural and residential single-family zoned areas.
There are performance standards rental owners must agree to, including noise, parking and occupancy limits, septic and trash rules, and provision of 24-hour contact information to neighbors. Except for a requirement to pay the TOT, there were no rules for vacation rentals prior to 2011.
Last October, the Board of Supervisors agreed to revisit the issue of vacation rentals, and come up with ways to improve the ordinance, especially given the proliferation of illegal rentals that operate without the county-required performance standards, and avoid paying taxes. PRMD says property management groups are helping to identify the scofflaws and bring unpermitted rentals into compliance.
Community forums throughout the county will be held through early March, including a session especially for vacation rental owners and property managers on Feb. 23, 4 to 7 p.m. at the PRMD hearing room, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa.
Suggestions and comments regarding vacation rentals can be sent to PRMD online by going to www.sonoma-county.org/vacationrentals.
PRMD staff will pull together all the information from the forums and hold a public workshop on possible changes to the ordinance in the spring. After that, potential changes will go before the county’s Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors.
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