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Vacation rentals – saint or sinner?

Sonoma Valley residents crowded Booker Hall at La Luz Center Monday, sticking colored dots on maps of their neighborhoods – a noise issue here, parking problems there.

Residents delineated their concerns associated with the area’s growing vacation rental market as part of the county’s Permitting and Resource Management Department (PRMD) meeting to review vacation rental ordinances and consider updates. Last fall, at the urging of 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the Board of Supervisors initiated a review of the county’s Vacation Rental Ordinance to examine the effectiveness of the ordinance and its regulations, including neighborhood compatibility, rental management and how to enforce existing provisions.

In the county, vacation rentals are defined as homes and guest homes intended for “permanent occupancy” but rented out for less than 30 days. A vacation rental cannot be an uninhabitable structure, like a barn or garage, and does not include bed and breakfasts or occasional home exchanges that are not subject to the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). Vacation rentals are allowed in most residential and agricultural zoning districts with a permit. They are not allowed on any property under a Williamson Act agricultural preservation contract or on properties zoned for high-density housing. In the City of Sonoma, vacation rentals of less than 30 days have been banned in residential zones since last year. TOT in the county is a 9 percent tax on the rental rate, compared to a 10 percent tax for city TOT. In the city, an additional 2 percent tax is levied for the Tourism Improvement District (TID) that is shared with the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau for marketing and promotion.

The meeting focused on vacation rentals in the 1st District – not including the City of Sonoma – and drew concerns from the scores of audience members, some worried about the impact of vacation rentals on the community and others pushing for vacation rentals as a way to make living affordable and exciting.

Pam Mullen, who has lived off of Winter Creek Lane near Carriger Road for nearly 30 years, said, “I’m concerned about the changing character of my neighborhood and I worry about the changing character of Sonoma, which was once marked by slow growth and managed growth, but (is) now out of control.”

Residents opposed to rentals voiced concerns over added traffic, decreased housing stock, loud parties, underage drinking and diminished community investment. Residents in favor of rentals cited affordability, high demand, increased county funding and ensuring their own livelihoods as reasons to keep renting an option.

Farrel Beddome, who also attended the meeting and used to rent a room in her house near Sonoma Cinemas before realizing it violated the rules of her neighborhood’s homeowners association, explained that in this shared economy, the flexibility of and extra income from vacation rentals are “what it takes to live.” She continued, “People are attached to the status quo, but the world has changed a lot, especially with the 2008 recession. Hanging on to the status quo is really hanging on to yesterday’s success and that is not a solution for a viable community.”

Now Beddome rents out her space for periods longer than 30 days to meet her HOA requirements, but says she doesn’t understand how this is much different than shorter periods. “There is more risk associated with (renting the whole house out for 30 days or more) because now the homeowner is not there.”

Beddome said she met “fascinating, wonderful” people while renting and understands concerns about safety and bringing strangers to the neighborhood, but agencies like Airbnb that vet customers and homeowners alike in a careful screening process make her feel more comfortable. Beddome doesn’t want experiences with one vacation rental or one group to create a fear of all vacation rentals or even renting out one room of a house. “There are good and bad people. There are those people who behave badly. It has nothing to do with people who pay a lot for these rentals.”

Joan Geary, who lives down the street from Mullen on Winter Creek Lane, hopes the county bans vacation rentals in the first district – or, at the very least, limits the areas where homeowners can rent. Geary, who has lived in her home for 11 years and enjoys its remote location, said the two rentals on her one-lane street cause disruption to the once tight-knit neighborhood. Winter Creek Lane, she said, is so narrow that cars cannot pass each other, the road floods in the winter, mudslides occur every so often and trees have been known to fall. The steep uphill climb, sharp curves and cliff drop-off make the area especially dangerous to naïve vacationers. “When you have strangers complicating the situation, it is just really dangerous.”

Chip and Jeanne Allen started renting out the spare bedroom in their Patten Street house through Airbnb in 2012 as a way to offset the cost of high medical bills associated with Jeanne’s multiple sclerosis. When they started renting out the entire house, they were shut down by the city after neighbors complained. After their experience in 2013, the Allens said they are no longer in favor of whole-house vacation rentals, but rather in-home hosted rentals to increase owner responsibility.

Now, the couple rents out their house on Airbnb for 30 or more days in compliance with city regulations. But still, Jeanne understands concerns of hotels and bed and breakfasts in the Valley seeing vacation rentals as more competition to secure customers. “The (city and county) need to figure out how to level the playing field … to have a fair competition,” Jeanne said, noting her sensitivity.

Ellen McKnight lives off of Hill Road in Glen Ellen where she has rented out the barn she converted into a guest cottage to vacationers for more than 15 years. As a longtime Sonoma resident, she said she recognizes the changes that have turned Sonoma Valley into a tourist destination with high costs of living.

McKnight takes great pride having a rental where she is conscientious the impact on her neighbors and is quick to admonish the behavior of some of the other five rentals on her road. The problem she sees is where nonresident owners rent out their properties and renters hold loud parties or events on streets that are not fit to park so many cars. The problem, she said, is “the influence of big money and people can’t afford to live here.”

“Absentee owners are a big part of a problem and they don’t need to be doing vacation rentals. They aren’t here to suffer consequences (of bad guests),” McKnight said.

Maria Lobanovsky, a homeowner who used to rent a room in her Fourth Street East house out to vacationers through Airbnb, said not all rentals are the same – with homeowners who host renters in a room of their house being unfairly grouped in with other types of vacation rentals.

Lobanovsky attended Monday’s meeting in hopes of finding answers for this different type of renting that she refers to as “in-home hosting.” Lobanovsky said it would be foolish for the county and the city to pass up on additional revenues from the Transient Occupency Tax, adding that when vacation renters stay in her home she sends them out to local restaurants and stores and they are increasing revenue in the city, whereas they may stay somewhere cheaper or explore other areas if they were not renting a room at her house.

Still, Geary said she wants the county to forget about the income it could make from the TOT revenue of vacation rentals and remember that property owners, like those in her neighborhood, pay hefty property taxes – a home down the road from the Gearys recently sold for over $30 million.

“I don’t think it is fair to put commercial operations in residential areas,” Geary said.

While vacation rentals for less than 30 days are banned in the City of Sonoma, City Planning Director David Beddome said the county also needs to have another category for guests hosted in a house where the homeowner is living and present at the time of the rental.

McKnight urges the importance of enforcing existing regulations and any future rules.

The problem she explained is that PRMD, which enforces the ordinance, is not open over the weekend when most renting takes place and is thus unable to effectively police renting violations and disturbances. She wants to make sure everyone who is renting is paying taxes and said that while the county process can feel slow and time consuming, staff are eager and willing to work with property owners.

“The county can do all the regulations it wants, but if it doesn’t enforce them, what’s the point?” Geary said. “Ideally all vacation rentals would be banned.”

“Sonoma Valley is tourism – that’s how we survive,” Jeanne Allen said. “It would be nice to be able to use the equity in your own home to make ends meet.”

The county will continue to host meetings in other districts through March to get feedback from residents. For more information, visit sonomacounty.ca.gov/prmd.

‘Absentee owners are a big part of a problem and they don’t need to be doing vacation rentals. They aren’t here to suffer consequences (of bad guests).’

– Ellen McKnight

‘Ideally all vacation rentals would be banned.’

– Joan Geary

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