The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will consider a 45-day ban on new vacation rentals as it weighs additional rules and restrictions on short-term rentals in unincorporated parts of the county.
Officials say the temporary moratorium on issuing permits is needed to respond to a recent surge of applications ahead of the potential regulations, which the board is set to vote on in August.
The proposed rules include creating a system to license vacation rental properties and imposing limits on the number of short-term rentals allowed in certain neighborhoods, as well as prohibiting new rentals in others.
County planning staff said the licensing system would help address neighbors’ concerns about parking, noise and public safety by making it easier to enforce vacation rental regulations. The county would also launch a 24/7 hotline to respond to complaints.
The rental caps would limit short-term rentals to 5% of single-family homes in some communities where there are concerns about protecting available housing stock and preserving “neighborhood character.”
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she worries that without a moratorium, a deluge of property owners could submit applications to get ahead of potential caps on vacation rentals.
Already, county officials said they’ve received 50 vacation rental permit applications since announcing a March 17 public hearing on the proposed changes. The county normally receives around 10 applications a month.
“It feels like there’s chum in the water right now with the feeding frenzy,” said Hopkins, who represents west county and the lower Russian River, a popular region for second homes, but where many residents have concerns about vacation rentals.
Marin County supervisors are set to consider a similar temporary ban this month on vacation rentals in West Marin, a tourist hub where affordable workforce housing is in short supply. A pandemic-era real estate rush has exacerbated the region’s housing crisis.
Claire Fetrow, a Forestville resident of 20 years, said four of the eight houses next to hers are now used as vacation rentals. That means loud late-night parties, bright lights shining into her home and rows of cars taking up parking on her sleepy neighborhood street.
“A person living in a home that they thought was their forever home and their piece of paradise now is being taken away by these hotel-like entities showing up on their doorstep,” Fetrow said.
Fetrow acknowledges that vacation homes have long been a staple of the lower Russian River area. But she said the advent of short-term rental listing sites such as Airbnb and VRBO have led to more vacation homes and a constant stream of renters, making her neighborhood feel increasingly more like a resort than a community.
“There has to be a distinction made that these are not the vacation rentals of the past,” she said.
Some vacation rental operators, meanwhile, argue additional restrictions could hurt the local tourism industry, as well as property owners who may rely on rentals as a key source of income.
Frederik Norgaard, who owns two rental properties in Monte Rio, told The Press Democrat in March that additional county regulation would undermine a thriving part of the county’s tourism economy. He’s concerned the vacation rental opponents will abuse any system for filing complaints.
“You’re giving this lethal weapon to people who can complain, who didn’t like vacation rentals in the first place,” he said.
In response to neighbors’ concerns, the Board of Supervisors last July directed planning staff to update the county’s current vacation rental ordinance and reach out to residents for recommendations. Last week, the Sonoma County Planning Commission approved the proposed changes, clearing the way for the rules to come before the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 2.
County staff are still working to determine which neighborhoods could see a 5% cap as part of the updated ordinance, though officials said that could include parts of the lower Russian River area and Sonoma Valley. Originally, staff had recommended a 10% cap. If vacation rentals in one of those communities already exceed 5%, no new permits would be issued there.
Such restrictions would not apply to areas along the coast, where any limits on the number of vacation rentals would likely need to be approved by the California Coastal Commission. The coast would also be exempt from the proposed temporary ban.
Under the county’s current vacation rental law passed in 2016, new short-term rentals continue to be prohibited in specific unincorporated areas, including communities in the Sonoma Valley, outside Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Inside city limits, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa have enacted prohibitions for some neighborhoods.
If approved by the board, the updated ordinance could expand the permanent prohibition on new rentals to some specific neighborhoods zoned as a “low density residential district,” officials said. That includes areas in Guerneville, El Verano in Sonoma Valley and the Mark West Springs area north of Santa Rosa.
The moves follow an emergency ordinance approved by supervisors in summer 2020 that put a temporary cap on vacation rentals in the unincorporated county. Later that year, the cap was scaled back to apply only to a neighborhood in the Sonoma Valley and part of the lower Russian River. It’s set to expire Aug. 6.
The new 45-day moratorium the Board is set to consider on Tuesday would also be an emergency ordinance, requiring a 4/5 vote to pass. If approved, it would go into effect immediately and expire in late June, officials said, before the Aug. 2 vote on the new regulations.
Bradley Dunn, policy manager with Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency, said part of the reason for the updated rules — particularly prohibiting new rentals in more neighborhoods — is to ensure homes aren’t “turned into vacation rentals in the areas of the county that have affordable housing available.”
A recent economic study commissioned by the county found an increase in short-term rentals had “little to no connection” with local single-family home prices. However, the study, authored by Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler, noted recent research shows vacation rentals can put pressure on long-term home rental prices.
According to the study, there were an estimated 2,459 local short-term rentals in 2021, making up 2% of the roughly 138,945 single-family homes in the county. About 1,485 rentals were in unincorporated areas, where the new rules would take effect.
You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.