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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.

More recently, Healdsburg city leaders have been asked to regulate the rentals after complaints about big parties, limos and loud bands at unpermitted rentals in the town's upscale homes.

This week in Petaluma, a community meeting drew nearly 20 people who spoke to the City Council about their experiences as operators of the under-the-radar rentals, guests or residents who live near them.

Several operators, or "hosts," as they call themselves, said they'd be happy to pay the city lodging tax, although they don't handle payments; the web booking site they use does.

A common Internet booking site, Airbnb.com, says hosts are responsible for collecting local taxes. Other under-the-radar rentals are advertised on Flipkey, Homeaway, VRBO and other sites.

Maurice and Sheri Bowers have operated a short-term vacation rental on Laurel Street northwest of downtown Petaluma since March.

They said they talked with their neighbors before offering their extra bedroom, for which they charge $90 a night. They also provide off-street parking for as many as six cars.

"We wanted to make sure our neighbors were comfortable with it," Sheri Bowers said. "We try to make it a non-issue."

A few others in town have generated complaints from neighbors unhappy with strangers coming and going, noises from vacationers and the unregulated commercial use in a residential area, Hines said.

Moreover, she said: "The city is not benefiting from the transient occupancy tax, because that's triggered through issuance of a business license."

Several rental operators said they don't consider what they do to be a business.

"It's a room in somebody's home, it's not a separate unit," said Deborah Garber, who rents space in her McNear Park-area home for $95 a night or $600 a week. "The argument could be made that that's similar to having a roommate. Does that connote a business?"

Naomi Richmond, operator of the Secret Garden north of downtown, rents two rooms for $85 a night or $560 a week. Some of her neighbors have complained about parking, noise and the commercial aspects of her operation on their street.

"How do we deal with changing times? One person said he wanted (the town) like 'Leave it to Beaver,' but it's too late," she said. "There is a fantasy that we can turn back the clock to that time."

The Bowers and others say they have made lasting friendships with guests, adding that many travelers prefer a more personal touch than a hotel.

City Council members asked city planners to gather more public input and return with ideas on how to regulate short-term rentals and collect lodging taxes, while assuring the businesses aren't a nuisance to the surrounding residents. No meeting dates have been set.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

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