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Santa Rosa City Council poised to strengthen regulations governing vacation rentals

Santa Rosa officials are seeking feedback on the shape and scope of a proposed set of new regulations governing short-term rental properties in the city, a move driven by both foregone tax revenue for City Hall and rising concerns about rentals from public safety officials and neighbors.

The Santa Rosa City Council will consider passing an urgency ordinance in October to regulate properties rented out through AirBnB, VRBO and other sites, creating an accelerated track for regulation on an issue that has bedeviled many American cities for years.

“It’s become a higher priority because of the amount of complaints we’re receiving,” city planner Shari Meads said, along with “the intensity of complaints that we’re receiving and how its become something that’s affecting a lot of neighborhoods and their character.”

City council hopes to pass an urgency ordinance to protect specific neighborhoods that are seeing a high impact from “bad actor,” short term rentals dedicated to large, partying groups, Mayor Chris Rogers said. A more comprehensive ordinance to address rental properties could then follow, he said.

“We do want to take a more thoughtful approach as well once we get that (protective) shell in place,” Rogers said.

The city has published a survey online that will run until Aug. 31. As many as 900 people had filled out the survey so far, city spokewoman Adriane Mertens said Monday. The survey is available at srcity.org/STR.

The push for regulation comes after an outside company in July alerted city officials that the actual number of short term rental properties in Santa Rosa may be more than double the number of officially registered properties.

The city, as of July, had around 197 registered short term rental properties, according to Meads. But an outside firm provided an analysis to the city that found as many as 358 short term rental properties advertising on various websites dedicated to the industry.

If the number is accurate, officials say, the city, which has been grappling with a budget deficit, is missing out on as much as $1.2 million a year in revenue through lodging taxes and business fees that aren’t being collected.

The firm Host Compliance LLC, a branch of the web company Granicus, which manages much of the city’s online content systems, conducted the analysis, according to Meads. The city council may consider contracting with the firm to monitor short-term rentals when they take up the urgency ordinance in October, city officials said.

Many short term rentals are located in the city’s hillier, fire-prone neighborhoods, including Rincon Valley and Montecito. Such concentrations worry fire officials, Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshall Paul Lowenthal said.

Fire officials want rental property guests to be informed about neighborhood evacuation routes and emergency alert systems, and hope an ordinance could drive such requirements.

“What we’ve seen here since 2017 is wildfires can happen at any point or any time,” Lowenthal said, “especially in the summertime when these properties are at their highest use.”

They also worry about fire safety in the homes themselves, some of which are large and are often rented out for parties, according to police and fire officials.

Police have for years fielded phone calls from residents upset about parties at neighboring homes that have been converted to short-term rentals, Santa Rosa Police Department Captain John Cregan said.

Bachelor and bachelorette parties, wedding events and other raucous and late-lasting celebrations at short-term rentals have been on the rise, officials said. Officials have not been able to successfully track the number of such calls, they said. Police officers and code enforcement officials, meanwhile, have had little recourse because there are no regulations against such parties, Cregan said.

“It’s kind of the wild west out there with the oversight of the short term rentals,” he said.

Most other cities in Sonoma County, including Healdsburg, Petaluma, Cloverdale and Sonoma require permits for short term rentals, and some, such as Healdsburg, do not issue permits for homes in certain residential neighborhoods. Rohnert Park has banned short term rentals of entire homes but allows the rental of single rooms.

Sonoma County has established a patchwork of limits on short-term rentals, with tighter prohibitions for some areas. The Board of Supervisors in 2016 banned the new rentals within a number of “exclusionary zones” around the county, including Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Fitch Mountain, Agua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs.

Supervisors last August passed a temporary ordinance to cap the number of vacation rentals in most unincorporated parts of the county, in part to stem house parties in rental properties during the pandemic. The supervisors lifted that cap in December for most areas but left it in place for around 3,500 homes along the lower Russian River and in the Sonoma Valley.

Other parts of the county have ordinances in place for zones still recovering from the major wildfires that have torched homes each summer since 2017.

In Santa Rosa, current regulations do not require a permit to establish a short-term rental. The properties are considered “hotels” for lodging tax purposes, according to the city finance department.

Frustrated neighbors have been bombarding city officials with complaints about rental units becoming party homes on their streets, with guests gobbling up parking spaces and carrying on loud parties late into the night.

“It’s really destroyed the whole neighborhood feel around here,” Dale Sessions, a Montecito Meadow resident, told The Press Democrat, speaking of a short-term rental that has hosted large parties on his street.

Sessions has seen weddings, bar mitzvah ceremonies and other events held at the rental property, he said, while appeals from neighborhood to the owner have gone unanswered.

In correspondence to the city council’s Economic Development Subcommittee, which discussed the topic Aug. 10, short-term rental operators saw support from event companies, transportation companies and at least one local art institution, the 6th Street Playhouse.

Some property owners noted that revenue from the rentals represents their livelihood.

“My husband and I are middle class Santa Rosa workers and residents, who are also doing a little bit of real estate investment to help us to afford the cost of living in Sonoma County, and eventually have greater financial stability and freedom for our family,” Liza Henty-Clark wrote in a letter to the subcommittee.

Henty-Clark asked city officials to consider "sensible and nuanced“ regulations.

Santa Rosa defines a short term rental as a residence where the owner rents out a room or the entire property for 30 days or less.

As many as 87% of the unregistered short term rentals in the city were marketed as entire homes for rent, according to Host Compliance’s analysis.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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