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Petaluma debating new rules for unofficial vacation rentals

  • Thomas Holsboer of the Netherlands works on programming an iPhone as a guest at the Bowers family's bed-and-breakfast home in Petaluma Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

As a city working to capitalize on its tourism charms, Petaluma doesn't want to snub potential overnight guests. But it does want its short-term lodging businesses to be legal and pay the taxes required of other accommodations.

The city passed code amendments last year that allow traditional bed-and-breakfasts to operate in residential districts, but only after approval of a use permit and other requirements to help them integrate into their neighborhoods.

Since then, only one B&B owner has applied for permission, Planning Manager Heather Hines said.

Meanwhile, there are at least 16 private, short-term vacation rentals listed on websites that cater to travelers looking for a homey getaway in the land of Butter and Eggs.

The short-term rentals, often a room or two or sometimes an entire house, don't fit into the city's current rules that regulate traditional B&Bs, hotels and boarding houses.

“It's difficult to classify these uses under the existing zoning code,” Hines said.

Owners offer a service for a fee, but don't have business licenses. They don't collect the city's 10 percent transient-occupancy tax charged on nightly stays at the city's hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds.

The city collects almost $2 million a year from its official lodging operators.

Petaluma is just the latest town in Sonoma County to grapple with the thorny issue of short-term vacation rentals.

Over the past three years, the county, Healdsburg and Sonoma have fielded complaints — and sometimes police calls — of guests damaging property, hosting large events or causing noisy havoc in previously quiet environs.

In early 2010, a teenage girl was seriously injured when a deck built without proper permits collapsed under a huge crowd of young people partying at a Guerneville-area vacation rental. At the time, the county had no rules governing such short-term rentals.

The Board of Supervisors subsequently established rules, including a permit process and caps on the number of rooms, guests, noise and other activity, for rentals outside the coastal zone. Permits range from $150 to $3,800, depending on the number of guest rooms and structures.

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