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Editorial: Council tackles VRs, housing, water rates

As the year winds down and a certain jolly red-suited fellow finalizes his naughty and nice lists for 2017, Sonomans should send a letter of reference this month to the North Pole on behalf of the Sonoma City Council, which capped an impressive Nov. 20 meeting with the unanimous approval of two much-anticipated ordinances.

Of course, “much anticipated” is open to interpretation – the items passed with little fanfare and no real opposition.

Nonetheless, just like your Uncle Ernie’s four-day old green-bean casserole leftovers, they warrant a closer look.

The first, a collection of amendments to the city’s vacation rental regulations, is a culmination of a number of moves the council has been mulling since it adopted an interim moratorium on new VRs in October of last year.

The amendments tighten the cap on new permits for vacation rentals – effectively barring new VRs in mixed-use and commercial zones; basically, any new cozy holiday-making in a downtown business district abode is a no-no. The lone exception being the re-use of a historic structure, which would allow a vacation rental permit if it could save a historic building from being sold for development.

Additional amendments passed as part of the package include limiting occupancy to two people per guestroom, plus two more people per unit; a noise prohibition on outside amplified sound; the requirement of a property manager; and mandating online vacation rental listings include evidence of a business license or transient occupancy tax ID.

The amendments cover several points the Council and Sonoma Planning Commission have been looking at for more than a year. And, whether one still believes the City is too strict or not strict enough with vacation rentals, the Council promised stricter limits and tighter enforcement and seems satisfied that this go-‘round with VRs is finally settled. For now, anyway.

The second item from last Monday’s meeting was passage of several post-fire housing measures that comprise an “urgency ordinance” to allow for the temporary easing of certain housing restrictions; it’s an effort to ensure Valley residents still displaced by the fire find suitable living quarters while they try to rebuild their lives. Among them are temporary allowances for folks to offer RVs, detached residential guest rooms and long-term vacation rentals as residences.

With the housing ordinance, the council also unanimously approved a resolution addressing rent gouging – effectively directing the city Code Enforcement Officer to monitor rental listings for any post-fire, and potentially illegal, spikes in rents. One would hope the Code Enforcement Officer finds none of that in the Sonoma Valley – but we applaud the effort to weed out such iniquity nonetheless.

It’s been a productive month for the Sonoma City Council – which also last week contracted with Raftelis Financial Consultants for a maximum of $75,000 to conduct a long-awaited water-rate study to determine whether Sonoma’s highest-in-the-region water rates are, as some critics allege, too high. (But don’t go spending your anticipated water-rate-study savings this holiday season, Sonoma. There’s a good chance rates may not be high enough!)

As the year for the City of Sonoma draws to a close – a year bookended on the one end by a heavy turnover in City staff and on the other by a tragic fire – city officials seem to have their wheels back on track and headed in what we hope is a productive direction into the New Year. City councils are by nature easy targets for community criticisms when towns evolve, as they constantly do.

They do too much of this; they don’t do enough of that. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s overblown. Sonoma’s no different.

Mayor Rachel Hundley touched upon that briefly at the Nov. 20 meeting.

“There have been things slowly creeping along in the background this whole time,” she said. “But we just haven’t been talking about them because some of the projects had a lot of work to do before they came back (before Council).”

Added Hundley: “Now that the wind is in our sails… and I think we can get a lot of great things done.”

Now there’s something to put on our letters to Santa.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.