Sonoma County Supervisors weigh changes to vacation rental policies

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One of Sonoma County’s most heated issues finally finds its way before the five members of the Board of Supervisors next week, on Tuesday Jan. 26, as they take up revisions to the Planning Code on vacation rentals – the temporary rental of rooms or houses to out-of-town visitors.

The Board is the last stop before approval for the new measures, which were finalized in a November meeting of the Planning Commission, after a lengthy PRMD study group and workshop process that lasted most of 2015.

The Permit and Resource Management Department took up the issue well over a year ago, at the urging of 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin. “I’ve been living and breathing this issue almost since I’ve been elected,” she told the Index-Tribune.

Her concern is doubtless predicated on the Sonoma Valley’s status as one of the two areas in the county most directly affected by vacation rentals. Data in the Planning Commission reports show that District 1 leads Sonoma County with 448 approved vacation rental, while District 5 has 407. The figures, as of Dec. 28, 2015, show 1,027 permits issued in the county.

Short-term rentals, while not necessarily illegal in themselves, draw criticism for their avoidance of Transient Occupancy Tax revenue, their impact on residential neighborhoods, and their potential for housing code violations. More troubling are complaints about loud parties, extra vehicles taking up street parking, visitors indifferent to neighborhood speed limits or nighttime quiet, etc.

Many in the county have been astonished by the skyrocketing short-term rentals that social “sharing” tools such as AirBnB and Vacation Homes by Owner have facilitated, and their impacts on formerly quiet (or at least predictable) residential areas.

In fact, one of the key recommendations the Planning Commission has made is to stop issuing vacation rental permits in R1 districts, residential neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Though the door is left open for “hosted rentals” where the homeowner lives on site and rents a room or two out, full-home vacation rentals are taking workforce housing out of the housing market, creating one of the key objections to full-home vacation rentals – so new permits will not be issued.

Grandfathering in current permits, however, is one of the Planning Commission’s recommendations, and that’s likely to evoke critical reaction from the public at Tuesday’s meeting, if not from some supervisors themselves. While Gorin was “disappointed” by the grandfather clause, she acknowledged that changes would come to residential areas like the Springs over time, if no new permits were issued – and if permit enforcement could be ramped up.

Some Valley residents have been far more critical of both the Planning Commissions proposed changes, and the original Vacation Rental Ordinance itself, dating from 2011. Deborah Nitasaka of Glen Ellen called it a “failed” ordinance.

“Airbnb, VRBO, Homeaway, and numerous other online brokers profit when commercial ventures convert homes into de facto hotels,” she wrote in the statement she presented to the Board of Supervisors for next week’s meeting. “These practices exacerbate the affordable housing crisis in Sonoma County and elsewhere, disrupt permanent residents’ quality of life, and pose public safety hazards for hosts, guests, and neighbors.”

Tom Jones, an outspoken board member of the Diamond A Neighborhood Association, was cautiously optimistic about the Planning Commission’s proposals and, like Gorin, he congratulated the Commission and the PRMD study groups for their efforts and progress. But, he added, “I continue to believe that the negative impact of this business is being underestimated, much like other ‘sharing economy’ adventures such as Uber.”

Jones is one of the few who has persistently raised the American Disabilities Act, asking how owners can rent a property out as a business if they simply skate around ADA compliance by claiming not to be a business. “The magnitude of the vacation rental business persuades me that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of mobility-impaired guests of the County are being made to feel unwelcome in what has now become a feature of the County’s support of the tourism industry,” he wrote to the Index-Tribune.

At next Tuesday’s meeting – which starts at 3 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors chambers, 527 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa – the Board will doubtless receive comments like Nitasaka’s, Jones’ and others strongly against the vacation rental economy. They are just as likely to hear comments from homeowners who feel wrongly singled out by increased restrictions and pressures on their right to use their homes as they see fit.

As at previous hearings on this subject, it’s anticipated that AirBnB will send several advocates and representatives to argue their case for their economic model. But Gorin dryly said she’s “a veteran of financially invested interest groups” trying to sway results by stacking such hearings. She added, “I would encourage them not to do that on Tuesday, it will be very frustrating for them.”

Still, it’s likely to be a lively and lengthy hearing – a victory for some, a defeat for others, a compromise for most.

Comments and opinions from the public on the issue will be considered by the Board, in any case, though they prefer such comments be submitted by email or letters. Emails should be sent to all five supervisors, whose contact information can be found at sonoma-county.org/boardofsupervisors.

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