Sonoma County Vacation Rental Rules Under Scrutiny
By Nic Pereira, Spa Dad and Son and Camille LeGrand, Russian River Getaways
If you live in unincorporated Sonoma County, there may be a quiet (or not so quiet) powerhouse of the local tourism industry in your neighborhood. Vacation rentals are single family homes, rented short-term to visitors whose spending in the county approaches $90 million dollars a year. While the vast majority of these homes are positive parts of their communities, a few bad apples have generated a litany of complaints ranging from noise to traffic and garbage.
There are no county guidelines governing the operation of vacation rentals despite their having been a part of the tourism landscape for decades and disgruntled neighbors complain they have no means to deal with the half-dozen or so problem homes. So, for what in any other instance would be a nuisance property, the county Board of Supervisors, led by District 1 (Sonoma Valley) Supervisor Valerie Brown, have decided to enact broad restrictions with the potential to seriously damage the county’s tourism industry, particularly in District 5 (West County), where two-thirds of the vacation rentals are located.
Vital to the Local Economy
With much of the original tourist lodging either destroyed via fire, flood or neglect, or converted to low-income housing, vacation rentals now represent the majority of guest accommodation in the 5th district.
When first brought before the Board of Supervisors Permit and Resource Management Department, PRMD claimed that vacation rentals were taking away low-income housing stock. They dropped this claim when it was pointed out that most of the vacation rentals could hardly be described as low-income housing, but not before causing speculation that the Highway 101 corridor municipalities, through PRMD, were surreptitiously trying to kill the tourism industry on the Lower River in order to create bedroom communities without the need to invest in infrastructure.
The current PRMD strategy is to claim that vacation rentals are an illegal activity because of the “permissive use” nature of the county’s zoning ordinances – “permissive use” meaning that if it’s not explicitly permitted in the zoning description, it’s not a legal use of the property. This is going to be a difficult position to defend since the county has been collecting Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) from these properties for decades. If these homes have never been legal, will the county be returning its millions in ill-gotten gains?
Task Force Formed
After that initial hearing, a task force of vacation rental managers, Supervisors Brown and Carrillo, PRMD, NORBAR (the realtors association), the Tax Collector, and some angry neighbors collaborated, resulting in a proposed vacation rental ordinance unveiled in January 2010. A public workshop then invited comments on this proposed ordinance and the affected businesses supported it in principle, with the understanding that there were still many details to be worked out, especially with regard to enforcement. While the ordinance was a huge overkill to deal with a few problem houses, if the Board of Supervisors wanted regulation, at least everyone involved was on board.
New Ordinance Drafted
PRMD went silent after that workshop. In late May, PRMD released the new draft ordinance. This ordinance bore little resemblance to the January 2010 proposal - it was drafted without regard for any economic consequences, it is draconian in its provisions, inserts an entire septic red herring that was never part of any discussions, and appears to have as its intent the gradual elimination of most vacation rentals - one complaint and the vacation rental permit could be revoked for a year.
The ordinance was set for hearing by the Planning Commission. At the June 10 hearing, the Planning Commission rejected the proposed ordinance and sent it back to PRMD to come up with something simpler and without the negative economic consequences, with the next hearing set for August 5.
Essential to River Tourism
Vacation rentals are vital to our local economy, especially in the river area. Vacation rentals bring over 30,000 visitors here every year. Without these, the loss to our local restaurants, bars, stores, and services would be substantial; indeed, many could not survive. Without vacation rental income, many homes here will fall into foreclosure or undergo forced sales, dragging down all property values.
The vacation rental management companies support many ancillary service businesses: contractors, handy folk, cleaners, pool and hot tub maintenance companies, dog sitters, yard maintenance workers, electricians, and plumbers, to name a few. In addition, the vacation rental companies provide concierge services as well, supporting kayak rentals, personal chefs, and wine tours, among many others.
While it is reasonable for the county to find some way to prevent the few problem houses from continuing to operate as nuisances to their neighbors, we could only wish that they would find a way to curtail all nuisance neighbors, not just the handful that happen to be vacation rentals.
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