New rules for vacation rentals in Sonoma get City Council approval

If you have a licensed vacation rental property in the City of Sonoma, you’ve just been given a set of rules to assure compliance with the city’s municipal code – in terms of occupancy limits, noise limits and an available property manager.

But if you don’t have a license now to run a vacation rental business, good luck with getting one started.

“The door is closed,” said Mayor Rachel Hundley, as the City Council voted 5-0 to amend the city code on vacation rental policy at the Council’s Nov. 20 meeting. And to the 40-plus vacation rentals currently legally operating in Sonoma, she added, “Congratulations on getting in the door.”

The vote brought a solution, for the time being, to Sonoma’s wrestling match between vacation rental advocates and opponents, a tussle that has been ongoing for over a year. In October 2016, faced with a county-wide uproar over unlicensed vacation rentals, the council adopted an interim moratorium on approval of new vacation rental permits pending a review of the city’s policies.

Since that time several meetings of the City Council and the Planning Commission have taken place, with plenty of public comment at each, discussing such operational adjustments as limiting the number of occupants and daytime visitors, imposing noise limits, and requiring an available property manager, even if that manager is not on-site.

Policy fixes were also proposed, including requiring a business license from the city, and compelling payment of transient occupancy tax, as well as fire and life safety requirements and inspections.

Overall, however, the amendments as passed amount to minor fixes to licensing and operations policy. These policies closely track with those adopted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in March, 2016.

Of course, the unanimous approval of the revised ordinance didn’t escape objection during public comment. Zac Weinberg, president of Stay Sonoma Valley (formerly the Sonoma Valley B&B Association), asked that the occupancy limits be left up to the owner, instead of a bed-count by the city.

He also requested that the noise ordinance should eliminate references to “outdoor amplified sound” during nighttime hours, and that the council consider lifting the 29-day limit on vacation rental occupancy.

“Vacation rentals should be on the same playing field as B&Bs and hotels, which have no such restrictions,” he said with regard to the noise limit clause. This clause states simply, “Vacation rentals shall be operated in conformance with the Noise Ordinance (SMC Chapter 9.56). Outdoor amplified sound shall be prohibited.”

That prompted Councilmember Amy Harrington to ask, “What is amplified sound? Is that a radio?”

City Planning Director David Goodison answered without hesitation, “If it’s a loud radio that we get a complaint about, then yeah, it’s a radio.”

While the current list from the city shows 49 permitted vacation rentals, those numbers are squishy. Three of the addresses on the list, for instance – in the 100 block of West Napa – were withdrawn from vacation rental permitting by owner Mike Marino, who instead obtained a permit for a seven-unit “boutique hotel.” And several speakers at the meeting, both on the council and from the floor, referred to 41 vacation rentals. Some of those have been in operation since the city initially passed its vacation rental ordinance in 1999.

The new rules mean that, while it will be more difficult to get a new use permit for a vacation rental, it won’t be impossible. Permits will not be issued in mixed-use or commercial zones except if the property qualifies as “an adaptive re-use of a historic structure,” according to Goodison, which can be in any zone.

Harrington also opened up the question of legal versus illegal vacation rentals, saying when she met with owners of the licensed properties, “They feel very maligned by comments about vacation rentals.” The councilmember stressed that she appreciated the legal vacation rental businesses for the “great job they are doing for this community,” adding that the proposed regulations were “not a critique of what you’re doing.”

Councilmember David Cook jumped on the theme as well.

“Legal vacation rentals are a benefit to our society and the City of Sonoma, because not everyone wants to stay in a hotel. They provide a service,” said Cook.

Illegal vacation rentals do just the opposite, Cook said. “I do not like illegal vacation rentals. If you know that one is happening, call me or the city of Sonoma and we’ll go shut them down.”

But enforcement of any city ordinance requires time, staff and money. Right now, the City of Sonoma has one half-time enforcement officer, Patrick Galvin, who works for City Prosecutor Robert Smith – both contracted positions. And though Goodison said following up on vacation rental complaints was “a priority,” he had to concede that the two-person team of Galvin and Smith, “Well, it’s not exactly an army…”

In neighboring Petaluma, the city recently contracted with a company called Host Compliance to compile addresses of all rentals listed on some 25 websites, such as AirBnB and VRBO, deliver weekly reports to the city, and send out notices outlining compliance requirements to each rental operator. Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola left open the possibility that Sonoma might hire an outside company to track vacation rental operations in town, saying such companies “use algorithms to look at some of these things… This is their business day in and day out.”

The ordinance was approved on first reading and discussion by the City Council, but it is not yet law. It will be included as a consent calendar item on Dec. 4, the next meeting of the council, and is expected to be passed without further discussion, and take effect the first week of 2018. Until then, the moratorium on new vacation rental permits remains in place.

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