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Healdsburg reaffirms ban on vacation rentals

The City Council took little time Monday evening in upholding a ban on vacation rentals in residential areas, mainly in an effort to preserve the city’s housing for residents and workers - not visitors.|

Vacation rentals, which can provide a homey alternative to a hotel or motel, have skyrocketed in popularity, allowing tourists to rent a house, for a couple of days or maybe a week at a time, often for a better deal than a traditional inn.

But don’t expect to find them in Healdsburg - unless they are outside city limits or in a narrow downtown commercial area.

The City Council took little time Monday evening in unanimously upholding a ban on vacation rentals in residential areas, mainly in an effort to preserve the city’s housing for residents and workers - not visitors.

“Anything that takes away from potential long-term rental stock is a non-starter,” said Mayor Shaun McCaffery, noting that the lack of affordable housing has risen to the top of the civic agenda with a recent wave of escalating rents and evictions of low-income tenants.

Council members said they realize that Healdsburg, a favorite of Wine Country visitors, would likely see a big number of vacation rentals if they were allowed. But to maintain neighborhood integrity and tranquility, as well as preserve long-term rental stock, the city is banning any rentals of fewer than 30 days.

“There’s no gray area for me. It’s bad for the neighborhoods,” said Councilman Tom Chambers. “Healdsburg is such a destination. If this were allowed, I think here would be a lot more people that would find it very advantageous to be able to go ahead and do that.”

He noted that there are recurring complaints about the city being overrun by tourists, and allowing short-term rentals “would exacerbate the situation.”

Cities in the North Bay are split on their policies toward vacation rentals.

They are allowed in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor, Sebastopol and Cotati.

Both Cloverdale and Healdsburg only allow them in commercial areas and with a use permit.

Sonoma County allows them in most unincorporated areas with a zoning permit. The county requires the payment of bed taxes and restricts the number of guests.

The city of Sonoma requires the homes to be historic and the revenue collected go toward fixing the property.

They are prohibited in unincorporated parts of Napa County and in Calistoga, but allowed in Napa and St. Helena.

Participants in last year’s workshops designed to find solutions to Healdsburg’s housing crunch urged city officials to enforce existing regulations that prohibit short-term vacation rentals to keep locals from being squeezed out even more.

But others have argued in favor of allowing vacation rentals and say the city can collect revenue by imposing bed taxes on them.

Those in favor of allowing vacation rentals say that it can help homeowners pay the mortgage and other costs, particularly if they are on a fixed income.

There have been suggestions to compromise and allow rentals in units that don’t have a kitchen or are more of a guest house.

But McCaffery said such an exception could be difficult to police.

“It’s a fine line between that and a granny unit when you’re trying to enforce these things. Once you open the door, it takes a fair bit of enforcement to figure out who’s legal and who’s not,” he said.

Healdsburg officials say vacation rentals alter the character of the community.

Barbara Nelson, the city’s planning and building director, said they commercialize neighborhoods. Continuous visitors end up replacing long-term residents “that participate and contribute to the social and economic fabric of the neighborhood and community.”

And occasionally, vacation rentals become party houses that disturb residents’ tranquility.

Two years ago, complaints of noisy pool parties and special events at a $4,500-per-weekend home in an upscale Fitch Mountain neighborhood led the city to increase the fines to $1,000 per day for homeowners who violate the city’s ban on short-term rentals.

There are scores of listings for short-term rentals in Healdsburg on websites like VRBO.com, but most of those are for homes outside city limits, with a Healdsburg mailing address, according to the city’s code enforcement officer.

Since August 2014, code enforcement officer Kevin Young has investigated 45 violations, with three more cases pending.

Of the 45, he said 35 were determined to be illegal. Most property owners were given warnings, but 13 were issued citations, he said.

Nine that he investigated were permitted, either because they existed prior to 2001 when the city prohibited all manner of vacation rentals, or some were considered de facto bed and breakfast inns.

Young said different criteria exist for B&Bs, which are required to operate at properties that are historic or architecturally unique and have an on-site manager.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a full quote by Councilman Tom Chambers. An earlier version contained a partial quote.

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