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Sonoma Board of Supervisors passes exclusion zones, halts new applications

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In a day-long meeting on May 24, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors finally passed into code the last element of long-awaited Vacation Rental Ordinance revisions – and took the unusual step of cutting off further permit applications in the new “exclusion zones,” effective immediately.

It was almost 4 p.m. by the time the board’s discussion on the vacation rental ordinance got underway, about two hours later than expected. Some 40 speakers marched to the public comment podium for over an hour of public testimony, including some homeowners seeking to affirm their right to rent their property as they chose, and many residents concerned about the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Deborah Nitasaka of Glen Ellen played a video she made at 2:30 a.m. on a recent morning, of a group of female vacation renters who can be heard squealing “We’re naked!” as they frolicked in the pool. Nitasaka said that some of the supervisors had been skeptical of neighbor complaints earlier in the lengthy board review of the vacation rental permitting issue. “I think it’s fair to say the video I played on Tuesday may have convinced some of the boardmembers to re-think that mentality,” said Nitasaka.

Finally at 5:30 p.m. the boardmembers themselves were able to discuss the issue, with both supervisors James Gore and Susan Gorin making adjustments to the exclusion zones proposed for their districts. Supervisor Gorin pulled Arnold Drive from the exclusion zone, but added two new areas on Mission Creek Road and in Glen Ellen fronting Chauvit Road.

The most surprising step came when Gorin made a motion that the board order the county Planning and Resource Management Department to stop accepting further permit applications in the exclusion zones. Usually an ordinance passed by the board of supervisors goes into effect 30 days after the vote; Gorin’s motion meant that no future applications would be received from the date of Tuesday’s vote, essentially freezing the applications for new vacation rental permits in the exclusion zones.

According to the supervisor’s office, a spate of vacation rental applications have been received by PRMD in the time since the supervisors began discussing the creation of exclusion zones earlier this year, with some 200 filed in the past few months. Jane Riley of PRMD said some of those permits were received in 2015, and approved in 2016. “There are currently about 60 requests for vacation rental permits pending in the 1st District,” she said.

As of Jan. 1, vacation-rental permits in the 1st District exceeded those in the Russian River-oriented 4th District, 448 to 407. The next time PRMD plans on tabulating permits is after July 1, but if Riley’s figures are correct, the number of permitted vacation rentals in the first district could easily exceed 500 by the next count, headed for 600 by the end of the year.

Gorin’s proposal to shut off the “pipeline” of applicants – a move she said was suggested by the Planning Commission – was added to the measure on the floor, leading to some uncertainty that the entire package might fail over the pipeline provision. While all five supervisors expressed support for the exclusionary zones – which fall only in the 1st and 4th districts, Gorin’s and Gore’s – supervisors David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo have been more accepting of vacation rentals in their districts, and less willing to put a lid on the practice.

“I was thinking about the moratorium vote and thinking I’m not going to get another vote,” said Gorin. In January she had proposed a broad moratorium on all vacation rental permit applications, but that proposal lost 3-2 (two votes short, as four would have been needed to pass a moratorium). Supervisor Gore backed Gorin in January, and again this week; this time Supervisor Shirlee Zane also sided with Gorin and, reluctantly, accepted the pipeline shut off in the final vote on the exclusionary zone overlays.

Gorin said that in the past few months she’s received many emails of support for the exclusion zones, but only a couple who objected to them – from constituents who had a house on the market and feared cutting off the vacation rental option for potential buyers would depress the sale price.

“I understand that,” the supervisor acknowledged, “but property values have escalated because of the multiple offers, low inventory, and because people are looking for more vacation homes. It has skewed the market and inflated home values, arbitrarily.”

Added Gorin; “Now these exclusion zones will put a bit more balance into market conditions.”

“I see better days ahead for the Sonoma Valley’s small communities,” said Nitasaka, who has been a vocal and active opponent of vacation rentals in Sonoma Valley in general and her Glen Ellen neighborhood in particular.

Still, with 600 vacation rental permits a near-inevitability in the 1st District, the root problem of neighborhood peace and quiet won’t disappear overnight.

The final vote on the new exclusion zones, with the shutting of the “pipeline,” was 3-2, with Gorin, Gore and Supervisor Shirlee Zane voting Aye and Supervisors Rabbitt and Carrillo offering up Nays.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.