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Morningside Mountain neighborhood seeks Sonoma County X-zone protection from vacation rentals

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An effort by residents of a subdivision between the Sonoma Developmental Center and Sobre Vista to have 32 lots designated as a vacation rental “exclusion zone” was approved last week by the Sonoma County Planning Commission. And that designation – which prohibits the issuance of any new vacation rental permits in the subdivision – succeeded far beyond the applicants’ original intent.

The unanimous, 5-0 approval included 32 additional lots in the same general area, essentially doubling the original request to include parcels with similar characteristics between the proposed X Zone and an existing X Zone, that of Sobre Vista – one of the original exclusion zones recognized by the Board of Supervisors in their 2016 review of Vacation Rental policy.

The neighborhood asking for new exclusion zone encompassed homes on Morningside Mountain Road, Vigilante Road and Oso Trail just south of SDC property. In mid-2017, 15 of the property owners signed a petition requesting the zoning change, which would prohibit the county from issuing new vacation rental permits in the zone. The petitioners paid $564 per household to help defray the initial cost of the application of $5,582, according to Permit Sonoma, the county’s permitting agency.

In addition to that fee, said Maggie Fleming of Permit Sonoma, “the project is billed at a cost to cover staff time to process the application. This amount would vary depending on the amount of time required for the application.” Hourly rate for staff time is $140, she said.

The application for the neighborhood exclusion zone was filed by Barry Swain, a contractor who lives on Vigilante Road. He said his name is attached to the application – though others were more instrumental in getting the process rolling – only because he took the paperwork to the county. “So of course my name is everywhere,” said Swain. “I’m not happy about that, but I’m just going with it.”

Having his name on the application means he is still getting bills from the county.

“I’ve got to send them a check for $1,816 and just got another invoice for $2,300,” said Swain. “I’m sure there’s going to be more.”

The additional properties were added to the zoning request by Permit Sonoma staff, since the properties share similar characteristics with the Morningside Mountain request and Sobre Vista, including “moderate to steep topography, fire prone forest vegetation, and substandard private roads.”

Still, said Fleming, “There is no added cost to the applicants for the additional lots recommended by staff. Staff will track any additional costs separately.”

According to county officials, the proposed rezone area contains “about seven miles of substandard private roads” that do not meet current private road standards in Sonoma County.

“These physical deficiencies combined with increased traffic from vacation rental guests who would be unfamiliar with the road constraints could affect road safety,” reads a report from county staff.

The addition of the 32 lots to the X Zone also reflects one of 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin’s stated priorities. “I’m pushing for a departmental effort to expand/create exclusion zones all at once – to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and not pass those on to the neighborhoods,” she told the Index-Tribune.

One of the residents who applauded the Planning Commission’s unanimous vote was Susan Costello.

“Vacation rentals are commercial businesses run out of a homeowner’s real property and thus are unambiguously incompatible with the general plan for our residential area,” said Costello. That reflects a common objection to the “business model” of vacation rentals, which have been considered a factor in driving up real estate values and filling neighborhoods with non-resident absentee homeowners.

Costello in particular expressed concern over the fire hazard.

“We really should be focusing on the fire risk up here,” said Costello, “which is huge, probably greater now that we are one of the few areas with vegetation left.”

At the time of the original application for the X Zone designation, there was only one property in the area that had a Vacation Rental permit – that at 3380 Vigilante Road, issued to a San Francisco resident on Jan. 9, 2017. Former resident Sue Skinner, one of the prime drivers of the X Zone petition, encouraged Swain to file the X Zone application on behalf of the neighborhood six months later.

When it came before the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission in September, it was narrowly endorsed by a 6-4 non-binding vote.

Neighborhood resident Bill Brinton has a house at the top Morningside Mountain Road and, in 2013, purchased the former Presbyterian Valley of the Moon Camp on an adjacent property.

He is not among the supporters of his neighborhood petition to become an vacation rental exclusion zone.

“I see it as a property rights issue, people should have the right to rent their property if they want to,” said Brinton.

But he agreed that violators of vacation rental noise and crowing issues should be fined. “I’d favor beefing up the penalties,” he said, but added it was difficult if not impossible to find out what complaints have been received against vacation rental properties. “This three-strikes thing is a joke. I favor that. If someone is doing all these bad things, get them out of here.”

Following the SVCAC vote, Brinton applied for a Vacation Rental permit at his 2600 Morningside Mountain home, which was issued on Oct. 2. Another application was applied for 100 Oso Trail, the former address of the initial X Zone supporters Sue Skinner and Robert Heisterberg.

The current owner is listed as David and Nicole Noland Trust, which applied for a Vacation Rental permit, making three currently valid permits in the original neighborhood that applied for the X Zone. Permit Sonoma’s communications manager Fleming said she was researching if any VR permits had been issued for the county-designated extension of the X Zone of 32 additional homes, between Morningside Mountain and Sobre Vista.

With the Planning Commission approval under their belt, the next step in the exclusion zone process is approval by the Board of Supervisors – a vote that could come in as little six weeks or up to three months.

However, during that period – and even 30 days after a potential approval by the Board of Supervisors – property owners in the newly-designated, 64-lot X Zone could still apply for a Vacation Rental permit. That opportunity reopened on Feb. 5, when the Board of Supervisors let lapse a county-wide, fire-related moratorium on new vacation rental permits.

If the permitting process is complete and in place, those VR permits would be grandfathered in, until the property is transferred or sold.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.