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News: 02/01/2016

Supervisors adopt “watered down” vacation rental rules

Frustrated Gorin sole dissenting vote on five-person board

Despite pleas from Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin that residential areas in her Sonoma Valley district were “under siege” from the rapid proliferation of vacation rentals, a majority of the Board decided against a countywide ban on new rentals in neighborhoods zoned for residential use, primarily known as R1 zoning.

“I get it, you’re not convinced,” said a frustrated Gorin, who ticked off a number of problems with rentals in R1 zones, ranging from their negative impact on workforce and affordable housing in the Springs area, to the consequences of overconcentration in areas such as Glen Ellen and Kenwood.

“People are really angry,” said Gorin.

But the other supervisors at the packed Board meeting on Jan. 26, a hearing regarding a number of proposed changes to the county’s vacation rental ordinance, were wary of establishing a blanket ban in R1 zones throughout the county.

“You can’t impose one policy for such a geographically and economically diverse county,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

The majority of supervisors decided to take what they called was a “surgical” approach in tackling neighborhoods negatively impacted by vacation rentals, approving the ability for the county to establish specific boundaries in certain areas that would prohibit new short-term whole house rentals.

Those who already have a vacation rental permit in these hypothetical areas would be allowed to continue operating until the house was sold, or unless the permit was revoked for violating county rules and standards.

In theory, these exclusion zones could be established in areas where it is determined, for example, that road access and off-street parking is inadequate, the number of rentals is detrimental to the character of a neighborhood, where residential housing stock needs to be protected from conversion to visitor-serving uses, and/or where there is significant fire hazard.

Gorin expressed concern about the complexity and length of time it would take to establish exclusion zones, and the rush of applications that would take place and be approved in between now and the time the boundaries were actually imposed. She attempted to get the Board to approve a temporary moratorium on vacation rentals in District 1, but the other supervisors declined to pursue that idea.

Gorin directed county planning staff to begin exclusion zone analysis for 10 areas – communities in the Springs area, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, and some areas in her district that have homeowner’s association rules that prohibit vacation rentals. Fourth District Supervisor James Gore asked that the Fitch Mountain residential areas be looked at.

County staff explained that the exclusion zone process would involve a number of steps, including mapping, notifying the property owners who would be affected, and public hearings in front of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Staff said it’s possible that any proposed exclusion zones could be back in front of the Board in six months.

Since the current vacation rental ordinance went into effect, 1,034 permits have been approved, with the vast majority in Sonoma Valley and the Russian River. In 2015 there was a large spike in the number of applications compared to previous years.

At the Jan. 26 meeting, much of the supervisors’ discussion, as well as comments from the public, concerned the need for better enforcement of the vacation rental ordinance, such as improved ways to identify rentals operating without a permit, or cracking down on perpetual party houses.

The Board adopted a number of new enforcement measures, including raising the financial penalties on illegal rentals as well as bigger fines for violating the vacation rental ordinance. A “three-strikes” rule was adopted – if there are three verified violations, then a vacation rental permit may be revoked. If revoked, that property owner could not reapply for two years. A new citation program was established, whereby county personnel (sheriff’s deputies, code enforcement, environmental health officers) could give code violators the equivalent of a ticket.

Supervisors also pledged to look for money to pay for increased code enforcement staff, and to have them available to work at night and on weekends, when most complaints about vacation rentals occur.

A training program for vacation rental managers was approved, as was a requirement that managers or property owners live within 30 miles of a rental in order to more quickly respond to complaints.

Supervisors also gave the OK for “hosted” rental permits, where an owner is allowed to rent out one room as long as they are staying on site.

A majority of supervisors jettisoned a proposal to require permits to be renewed every two years, calling it bureaucratically burdensome. Also nixed was a recommendation that would have prohibited any outside activity at a vacation rental between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

While Gorin said she was happy about a number of modifications and changes to the ordinance, she cast the lone dissenting vote on the whole package of recommendations, saying that she couldn’t support any “watered down” version.

“It is an understatement to say that I am profoundly disappointed that four supervisors clearly do not understand the impacts of a tourism economy on our neighborhood compatibility and workforce housing issues in the Valley,” said Gorin a few days after the meeting.

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