With its stately Victorians, historic downtown, and bucolic hills, Petaluma may seem an ideal place for a bed-and-breakfast getaway.

But when potential visitors call for details on B&Bs, they get an unexpected response —- the southern gateway to Wine Country doesn't have a single one.

"The person who travels and stays in bed-and-breakfasts is really surprised," said Onita Pellegrini, CEO of the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce. "They then say &‘Where is the nearest bed-and-breakfast inn?'"

Visitors aren't the only ones taken aback. David Scott, general manager of the Sheraton hotel in Petaluma and president of the Sonoma County Lodging Association, said he too was perplexed by their absence when he arrived in 2008.

It's a situation that may be changing. Earlier this week, the city council gave preliminary approval to a series of changes aimed at fostering economic development — including by relaxing rules governing where B&B's may locate.

Currently, such inns are allowed only in mixed-use areas, which are primarily in the downtown core and along Petaluma Boulevard, not in the historic neighborhoods where many feel bed-and-breakfasts would work best.

Change is not just a matter of drawing visitors to Petaluma, city staff say. B&B's could also help people preserve expensive old homes in an era of eroded property values.

Clark Rosen, a longtime real estate broker in Petaluma, welcomes the proposal. For decades, he and his wife have been fans of B&B's, enjoying them as windows into communities unlike the institutional feel of many hotels.

"There is just a bit more romance in that kind of inn that you don't find in a hotel," he said.

More practically, though, he said B&B's could help Petaluma cash in on its rising cachet, which he said has been building for the past decade or so.

"It should be a boon to tourism," he said. "It would encourage more people to land here and stay."

The proposal still requires a second vote for approval, which is not assured. Councilwoman Teresa Barrett voiced the most concerns at Monday's council meeting, saying she worried frequent events at B&B's could turn them into bad neighbors.

"That could turn your neighborhood into a very different place than the lovely little house you thought you were buying for the quiet weekend," she said.

But the rest of council seemed satisfied that potential innkeepers would still have to apply for conditional-use permits, allowing the city to gauge their appropriateness and to place limits on their activities. At the same time, the city would have more to offer tourists.

"It will give the visitors center another reason and ability to market Petaluma," Councilman Mike Harris said in a phone interview.

It remains to be seen how many people will rush to take advantage of the change in rules.

Ray Farris, who operated the Cavanagh Inn for 10 years, Petaluma's last B&B, cautioned many people think an innkeeper's life involves sipping wine and making cookies. The truth is it's hard work, he said.

"It's a 24/7 job," he said. "Do you know how long it takes to make seven rooms up?"

When he and his wife sold their inn nearly a decade ago, they tried to find someone who would continue to operate it. They were unable to, he said.

The B&B business may be more attractive now, though, he said, as property values have dropped while overnight rates have remained robust, making it easier to make a profit.

Michael Lerner, for one, is champing at the bit to give the B&B life a go. Four years ago, he and his wife, longtime residents of Mill Valley, bought a large home about six minutes' walk from the heart of downtown.

Built in 1895 as a birthing hospital, and later operated as Cherry Hill Rest Home, the renovated Victorian has ample rooms for guests.

Indeed Lerner said he got the idea for opening a bed and breakfast after entertaining friends from around world at the house, which has 10-foot ceilings, exposed fir wood floors, and hanging chandeliers. They encouraged him to make it into a B&B.

A born-chatter, Lerner likes the social side of the endeavor, but added income would be nice too, he said.

"In this world, a little cash flow is a good thing," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or at sam.scott@pressdemocrat.com.