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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Sonoma County officials are considering a multi-year ban on new vacation rentals in unincorporated areas burned by the October wildfires in a bid to prevent the sites of destroyed homes from being purchased by people who don’t plan to live there.

The measure comes as a greater number of properties burned in the fires go up for sale, and as a short-term ban on new vacation rentals, first authorized by the Board of Supervisors in the weeks after the fires, is set to expire Feb. 3.

Most supervisors were unwilling this week to extend the temporary moratorium beyond that date, but the board directed staff members to develop plans for a longer-term prohibition of new vacation rentals in areas outside cities where hundreds of homes were lost more than three months ago.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, an ardent supporter of vacation rental restrictions after the fires, said she’s heard strong interest in such a ban from residents in her district, which includes the Sonoma Valley, a popular tourist destination. Her support stems in part from an acknowledgment that some owners of the more than 5,100 homes lost in the county won’t rebuild due to financial challenges or other difficulties.

“I could just see the handwriting on the walls: That as the for sale signs pop up, investors will scoop them up with the thought that they are going to build very large homes to be used as vacation rentals,” said Gorin, who lost her own home in the fires. “They know that, in the end, those areas will recover, so why not monetize the asset now? I want to make sure that we give absolute first priority to the families who lost homes.”

Gorin was the only supervisor who voted Tuesday against allowing the temporary moratorium to expire. The ban did not include the Sonoma Coast or the Russian River area. In an interview, Gorin said she thought the board’s move was premature, with many fire victims “still unsettled,” and that she would have agreed to extend the temporary ban for a full year, as allowed by state law.

Glen Ellen resident Ed Davis has urged supervisors to extend the moratorium once more, fearing a possible vacation rental “land rush” before the county can prohibit them in the burn zones for a few years.

“They’ve created a window that speculators are going to capitalize on,” said Davis, who’s helped find housing for members of his community who lost their homes in October. “They just need to pause so that, while these new regulations and modifications are considered, they haven’t left this crack in the system that speculators will flood through.”

But Diana Gorsiski, past president of the North Bay Association of Realtors, worried that putting too many restrictions on vacation rentals, even in the burned areas, could impede homeowners’ private property rights, though she stressed the organization hadn’t taken any position on the proposal discussed by supervisors.

“When we restrict homeowners with what they can do with their property, we don’t think that actually helps the housing situation,” said Gorsiski, a local real estate agent. “I can tell you firsthand: People buying in these areas are people who just want to build a home. Nobody’s talked about it being a vacation rental home. That’s not on anybody’s mind at the moment.”

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City Government Office

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(Meeting begins 6 p.m.)

Inside city limits in Santa Rosa, where about 3,000 homes were lost in the fires, dozens of burned homesites have gone up for sale in the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods. The early buyers include builders and investors, who want to flip the properties, according to real estate agents.

County officials are concerned that plenty of the affected homesites outside city limits could be attractive spots for new vacation rentals. For Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore, who represents the northern county and much of the Tubbs fire zone, its neighborhoods such as the Mark West Springs area that present the most risk.

Many residents in those areas want to ensure their neighborhoods remain residential when they’re rebuilt, fueling Gore’s support for a vacation rental ban there, he said.

“I’m not going to jump into the world of saying we have to put a moratorium on (vacation rentals) countywide, because there are, in my mind, appropriate places,” Gore said. “(But) I am hearing loud and clear from my constituents who have organized in these burn areas and share information with thousands of people that this is something they would like to pursue, and I’m going to champion it for them.”

The county already allows neighborhoods to form special zones where vacation rentals aren’t allowed — an option embraced by sections of Glen Ellen, Kenwood and other neighborhoods that hold appeal for overnight visitors. But fees to form such zones can rise to about $10,000, prompting complaints from some neighborhoods that want the zoning designation but don’t have the money for it, supervisors said.

“It’s a matter of accounting,” said Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, explaining the county’s costs in establishing such designations. “This process has a cost. The organization can absorb it, but that would be something we would need to talk about with the (County Administrator’s Office) and the use of general funds to support that.”

While hoping to make the process more affordable for local residents, Gorin has also expressed interest in expanding some of the existing zones in her district where vacation rentals aren’t allowed, and designating new ones where neighborhoods want them. Gore said he may take a similar approach in his district.

At the same time, officials have actively encouraged owners of the county’s more than 1,400 permitted vacation rentals to rent their properties to displaced fire victims instead of tourists.

In December, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, then the board chairwoman, sent a letter to vacation rental owners asking them to consider making their properties available for rent on a long-term basis and to tell county planning staff if they were doing so. Over the next month, nearly 90 owners reported renting out their vacation rentals, and most are already housing a fire victim for a year and a half to two years, according to county staff.

But there are difficulties in that solution, as well.

Davis said he heard from one vacation rental owner interested in offering their five-bedroom house for rent to fire victims at 50 percent off. Even with the reported steep discount, rent for that home would have been $12,000 a month, according to Davis.

“I’ve heard versions of that story again and again,” he said.

But Gorsiski said she personally knew of several vacation rental owners who charged nothing in the firestorm’s aftermath.

“We had an outpouring of people who were very generous and offering their property free of charge to fire victims until they could get back on their feet,” she said.

Moving forward, Davis said county officials may be able to balance the interests of tourism and the housing supply through further promotion of hosted rentals, where the property owner lives on site. Supervisors previously exempted hosted rentals when they extended the vacation rental ban by two months in December.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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