Sonoma County Supervisors pass compromise vacation rentals revisions

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Susan Gorin went to the mat for her 1st District constituents at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, but failed to sway a majority of her colleagues that there is a vacation rentals emergency in Sonoma Valley.

First arguing vehemently that the revisions to the county’s vacation rental ordinance should include a ban on permits in R1, single-home residential neighborhoods, then calling for a county-wide moratorium on issuing new vacation rental permits until a new ordinance goes into effect, Gorin was rebuffed on both counts.

“My district is under siege,” she said in pleading for a moratorium. “People are so angry. These are neighborhoods that have been coming to me every day for three years.…

“We’ve seen the number of permits escalate dramatically in the first district. I need this tool.”

But at the end of the five and-a-half hour meeting, the Board voted to strip out the ban on R1 permits, eliminate a two-year renewable term for vacation rental (VR) permits, drop a requirement for a use permit for vacation rentals with five or more bedrooms, and back off a proposal to ban outdoor activities during quiet hours.

The result was that Gorin found herself forced to vote against the board’s endorsement of the VR policy options, because too much she had fought for was being discarded – much as Planning Commissioner Greg Carr voted against the bill as finalized by the Permit and Resources Management Department in November, for similar reasons.

“The quality of life in our neighborhoods is significantly affected,” Gorin repeated. “I am forced to vote against this even though I’ve worked really, really hard…” Her voice trailed off and broke, as the measure passed 4 - 1.

The Board was the final step in a year-long process of revising the 2011 ordinance that allows for permitted vacation rentals in the county. A number of public workshops had been held throughout the county to gather input and ideas on policy options, in light of the soaring number of vacation rental permits issued by PRMD.

The PRMD proposals as submitted to the Board included the outright ban on issuing new vacation rental permits in R1 zoned neighborhoods – a ban approved by the Planning Commission in November, and that Gorin supported, as it would bring to a halt the soaring rate of VR permits in the First District.

Some Valley neighborhoods have been unfairly impacted over the past few years by this aspect of the “sharing economy,” whereby homeowners rent out rooms or entire houses to visitors. The desirability of the still largely-rural Valley, with its prestige wineries and restaurants, has made it a magnet for lifestyle tourists – especially since neighboring Napa County doesn’t allow vacation rentals at all in non-incorporated areas.

In particular, sections of the Springs have lost workforce and affordable housing as even modest homes are converted to the tourist-centric purpose. One street in particular, said Gorin, has 11 vacation rentals in two blocks – East Thomson Avenue in the Boyes Hot Springs area; and other neighborhoods in Glen Ellen and Sonoma Mountain have also been heavily impacted by the business of vacation rental.

In fact many of the speakers in the three hours of public comment were from the First District and, by and large, they repeated their oft-told tale of loud parties, drunken drivers and loud visitors, even tour buses and limousines winding up narrow roads late in the night.

On the other hand, a number of homeowners and rental management representatives also spoke, again voicing the belief that their high ratings on AirBnB and customer satisfaction reports confirmed that they were on the right track. The problems were overblown, they said, and fault of a few bad apples.

There are two ways the county has to deal with bad apples, in this and other matters: enforcement and penalties. Again and again, from both anguished neighbors and vacation rental owners, there were calls for increased enforcement of the already-existing regulations – especially at nights and on weekends, when the offenses (and complaints) come in.

Tennis Wick, Jennifer Barrett and Jane Reilly of PRMD were on hand first to present the proposed changes, then to answer the Supervisors’ questions; but Wick noted that his department is in an unexpected period of transition, with three people leaving over the past couple months and two new hires. He agreed however to work toward finding a new employee who could work the off-standard shifts.

The penalties for permit violations have been loosely defined to this point, and rarely enforced. “If there is no complaint filed we don’t enforce,” said Barrett, who concurred with Reilly that the number of violations processed could be counted on one hand.

A key feature of the revised VR policy is a “3 strikes” rule against owners, which some feared could lead to reprisals or vengeance complaints. But on this question they had a hard time convincing the public, or skeptical supervisors, that the violations must be verified and lead to citations, after investigation.

Aside from the ban on VR permits in R1, the proposed changes included a maximum of one vehicle per bedroom, no events (weddings, etc.) without a use permit, regulation of outdoor fires, “quiet hours” between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and some expanded opportunities for “hosted rentals” where the property owner remains on site.

Two new zoning categories were also proposed, to provide exceptions to residential zoning areas that either prohibit or allow vacation rentals.

One is a new “VR” or Vacation Rental Overlay zone, designed to apply to resort areas where vacation rentals are appropriate in spite of other limitations; and “X” for a Vacation Rental Exclusion zone to ban vacation rentals in areas where they would otherwise be allowed.

The two signature examples of those are the VR exemptions for the Russian River area, and the X zone for controversial neighborhoods like the Diamond A Ranch development west of El Verano, a RR (rural residential) zone.

But by vote and comment, the supervisors clearly felt that if they allowed vacation rentals by default – which they did by eliminating the prohibition on VRs in residential neighborhoods – the VR zone was unnecessary, though it remained in the policy revisions.

On the other hand, the X zone now becomes the single most powerful – if not the only – means to prohibit vacation rentals in the besieged neighborhoods of Sonoma Valley. Gorin was asked to suggest to PRMD which areas of the Valley she’d like to see considered for the X overlay zone, with new vacation rentals prohibited within it, and she provided a long list.

“The entire Springs area – the primary workforce housing neighborhoods including Agua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters and El Verano,” enumerated Gorin. “Plus the homeowner association areas of Diamond A, Agua Caliente and Foothills Ranch, and the communities of Glen Ellen and Kenwood,” plus Winter Creek off of Carriger and Hill Road / Chauvet in Glen Ellen – a broad list that includes much of the residential Sonoma Valley in her district.

Wick and Barrett promised to prioritize Gorin’s exclusionary overlay zones as their first task, to allow the package to come back for final approval early in March.

Gorin’s attempt to impose a moratorium on new permits was a bold one she had alluded to in the past, and she was finally driven to it by the board’s dismissal of the prohibition against R1 zones. Her primary argument was that landowners were buying up property and applying for permits at an accelerated rate since the county began to look at revising the 2011 ordinance.

The figures are inarguable: in April 2015, PRMD released figures showing that there had been 822 vacation rental permits issued, with 331 in the First District and 340 in the Fifth District.

The figures on record for Tuesday’s meeting were from December 2015 – less than nine months later – showed a total of 1,035 permits issued, with 448 in the First and 407 in the Fifth districts. Jennifer Barrett of PRMD confirmed that there seemed to be a spike in applications following public meetings.

“We have 11 times more vacation rentals than you do,” joked Supervisor David Rabbitt (2nd district, Petaluma) to Shirlee Zane (3rd District, Santa Rosa) early in the meeting. He was referring to the fact that his district has 11 permits, according to the figures from PRMD, and Zane’s district has only one.

But it was no laughing matter to Gorin, whose district has the county’s highest amount of vacation rentals with 448 permitted properties.

Although 4th District Supervisor James Gore sided with Gorin on the moratorium vote, out of respect for his colleague, the others were less sympathetic.

“You have a constituency that’s been loud,” shrugged Efren Carrillo, acting as chairman of the board this term. “To me, it’s about what is the reality of the problem,” as opposed to the volume, he implied. “Maybe it’s grown, and I was just oblivious to it.”

Likewise, Rabbitt wasn’t swayed by Gorin, saying the tool for controlling vacation rental applications was the exclusionary zone, not a moratorium.

Nor was Zane willing to back Gorin. “It’s a messy process, democracy in action,” said Zane. “It’s really hard to impose one policy for such a diverse county.”

Ultimately the deleterious impact of the sharing economy on another supervisors’ district failed to engender any level of concern from Rabbitt or Zane, with their combined 12 VR permits.

Gorin’s last-ditch call for a moratorium – which requires a 4 - 1 vote – failed, with only two in favor and three against.

After the meeting, Gorin expressed her dismay following what she described as three years of work on vacation rental policy.

“All of that (work) blew up in an hour discussion of the Board of Supervisors,” said Gorin. “Again, the Supervisors simply have no understanding of the impacts (of vacation rentals) in the Valley because their districts are significantly different than the Valley. They don’t understand the challenges of strangers moving in and out of houses next door, or across the street. They rejected limits on gatherings of people outdoors, in the hot tub, drinking on the deck, interrupting sleep at midnight – because they don’t have constituents calling them about these issues.”

Gorin then called on Valley residents to express their feelings about vacation rentals to other district Supervisors.

“I understand it,” she said. “They don’t.”

Contact Christian at

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine