Healdsburg's move to crack down on illegal vacation home rentals has prompted questions over a rental owned by Councilwoman Susan Jones and whether she violated the city's ordinance prohibiting them.
Jones, the former police chief and last year's appointed mayor, has a two-story "cottage" in Healdsburg that she lists on the website Vacation Rentals By Owner.
Some of the information on the website - including calendar availability and guest reviews - indicated that people rented it out for a weekend, or less than the minimum 30 days that the city ordinance requires for landlords.
But Jones said Thursday that she and her spouse never rented it out for less than a month.
"At one point when we first listed it, the way VRBO structured their rates, we couldn't put a 30-day rate because people could still go in and do a daily rate. It was all screwed up," she said.
And she said the guest reviews written by those who stayed there for a weekend, or less than a month, were by either family or friends.
"They didn't pay," she said, although they were encouraged to evaluate their stay with on-line comments.
Vacation rentals are not allowed in Healdsburg residential areas such as the Parkland Farms neighborhood where Jones lives with her spouse, attorney Toni Lisoni.
Other than Jones, all members of the City Council have expressed support for the city's current ordinance, which prohibits vacation rentals everywhere but the downtown commercial zone.
In general, council members say they want to preserve the integrity of neighborhoods and the character of the community.
"You get people coming in — five or 10 spending a weekend — and loud parties in the neighborhood. It doesn't play well. It potentially affects property values with all the cars, people coming and going at all hours of the night. It doesn't fit with the character of the community," said Mayor Jim Wood.
Councilman Tom Chambers said while there may be many well-behaved, considerate vacation renters, "it doesn't take many to spoil it, to where it's obnoxious."
"People live in a residential neighborhood with the understanding that the people who are going to live there are going to be longtime residents," he said.
"We want to keep a sense of small town," said Councilman Gary Plass.
Some cities allow vacation rentals and even collect bed taxes on them. Santa Rosa allows them and so does Sonoma, in some neighborhoods.
They are prohibited in the unincorporated area of Napa County and in Calistoga.
Sonoma County allows vacation rentals in unincorporated areas but has limits on daytime and overnight occupancy and restrictions on noise and amplified sound.
It was complaints about an illegal vacation rental house in Healdsburg, on Sunset Drive in an upscale Fitch Mountain neighborhood, that brought the issue to the City Council last summer.
Neighbors complained of noisy pool parties and special events at the $4,500-per-weekend home, including a wedding and live band, along with limos clogging the cul-de-sac.
As a result, the City Council is moving toward beefing up the city's ordinance with heftier fines for property owners who rent out their homes for less than 30 days. The changes are tentatively set to be be voted on March 3.
This week, City Manager Marjie Pettus told the council the city has verified 30 properties as operating illegal vacation rentals and the owners have been been put on notice to stop it.
The question over the legitimacy of Jones' rental was raised several months ago by a citizen who provided the city with a number of properties on the VRBO website that appeared to be in violation, including hers.
Jones ended up writing a memo in mid-October to city manager Pettus to "assure you we are not operating an illegal vacation rental."
She acknowledged the website showed a two-night minimum for her property, but said it was incorrect.
"On occasion we had people asking if they could stay, pay for a week, or two, and we've been really clear - we have a city ordinance and I'm a council member and I'm not going to violate it," Jones said.
"We are well aware of the restriction of renting short term rentals and we have been abiding by the ordinance and only renting for a period of 30 days or greater," Jones said in her memo.
The rental cottage adjacent to her home consists of separate upstairs and downstairs units with their own kitchens.
The rents for each unit range from $2,000 to $2,800 per month, according to the website.
Jones said the "granny unit" was built for Lisoni's parents about 10 years ago. Her mother died and her father moved to a care home.
After a remodeling, Jones said they began renting it out in June.
She said the income helps defray the costs of caring for Lisoni's father in the senior living facility.
Jones said one rental unit is now occupied by two traveling nurses who have been there three months. The other is occupied by a General Dynamics employee who has been there "four or five months."
Mayor Wood said this week "I'm comfortable with her explanation, that she was not violating city policy."
Councilman Shaun McCaffery also said he was satisfied with Jones' account.
"It passed the smell test. To me, she was following regulations," he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com.