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Santa Rosa freezes applications for new unhosted vacation rentals, caps number citywide

Some Santa Rosa vacation rental owners planning to expand their business or register with the city will have to wait until next year to begin operating under new emergency rules approved Tuesday.

In a 5-2 vote, the Santa Rosa City Council supported limiting the number of short-term rentals where the owner does not live on the property — known as non-hosted rentals — to 198 citywide. The council also prohibited new applications until permanent rules are adopted.

“We clearly have not figured this out yet and we need to make sure that we are crafting rules before we have too many people in the process and change too many things,” Mayor Chris Rogers said. “Until we have our rules in place long-term, I think it’s reasonable for us to put a cap in place right now. It’s one shade away from calling it a moratorium.”

Council members Tom Schwedhelm and John Sawyer voted against the emergency ordinance, which required support of five of seven council members to pass. Schwedhelm said he supported staff’s recommendation of a higher cap while Sawyer said the new rules didn’t address residents’ concerns and were too restrictive.

Hosted rentals where the owner lives in the home or on the property are not affected by the new rules.

Citywide, there are 193 legally operating rentals that have received a permit or are considered operators in good standing who pay taxes and have submitted an application.

The council last October approved a framework for short-term rentals to operate in the city that sought to reduce fire safety risks, preserve housing stock and protect residential characteristics of neighborhoods. The new rules govern where rentals can operate, who can own such properties and how many, sets capacity and noise limits, bans rentals from being used for events and sets fire safety requirements.

But complaints, particularly about non-hosted rentals, have continued to pour into City Hall since. The frequency and nature of complaints and number of permits being requested led planning staff to take up amendments to the ordinance.

The changes went into effect immediately after the council’s vote, at the end of a three-and-a-half hour discussion where dozens of residents spoke out during the public portion of the meeting.

The rules left residents who say short-term rentals are a nuisance and have impacted the character of their neighborhoods seeking stronger action from city officials. But the cap angered operators who say vacation rentals help support tourism and bring in thousands of dollars annually to the city.

“I personally think you should limit the number of unhosted short-term rentals to zero,” said Marie Piazza, a 35-year resident of northwest Santa Rosa who said the house next door to hers was turned into a vacation rental a few years back.

Council members signaled support for more comprehensive amendments to the ordinance that would address concerns over noise and public safety and more efficient enforcement efforts to crack down on bad actors. Additional changes are likely to come back to council next spring.

Cap aimed to address backlog

Santa Rosa has issued 121 permits for short-term rentals and nearly 150 applications are under review, with the majority being for unhosted rentals.

Senior Planner Shari Meads attributed the backlog in applications to lengthy processing times.

Applications are being processed as they come in but how long it takes to review depends on how complete the application is, whether the property and application meet the city’s ordinance and, if not, how quickly issues can be resolved. Some applications have required revisions and multiple discussions with applicants, she said.

Meads said a cap gives planning staff time to review and approve pending applications. The city also hired a contract planner to review applications and Meads said she expects it will take three months to get through the backlog.

“We haven’t had the program up and running to the degree that we wanted to,” she said and added that pausing the program would allow staff to get it running “like we wanted to from Day 1.”

Staff had recommended limiting unhosted rentals to 215 citywide to account for pending applications and provide a cushion for new applications that came in by Tuesday’s meeting. In the end, just one new request came in, bringing the number of approved and pending applications to 198.

The council majority supported limiting the number of unhosted rentals to what was already in the pipeline.

The city will accept additional applications up to 198 if any are withdrawn or denied and staff is developing a process for accepting future applications if this occurs, Meads said.

Additional enforcement help

The council also approved expanding enforcement action to operators in good standing that were grandfathered in prior to the city adopting regulations, and they imposed an annual renewal fee for registered vacation rentals.

After three violations within a year, operators would face a fine of $2,000 and have their good standing status revoked, meaning they would have to cease operations.

Meads said expanding enforcement action will help address problem rentals.

The city has received 180 complaints about short-term rentals, including 44 related to just three properties, since October and staff believe the majority are related to unhosted rentals. The complaints have generated 125 investigations, though the bulk remain open.

The most common complaints are related to noise, overcrowding, parking and short-term rentals that are operating without a permit.

Enforcement staff has sent 44 citations: 19 have been dismissed, 12 have been paid and 13 are outstanding.

City officials acknowledged there have been delays in investigating cases but noted some issues can be addressed through police, fire or other departments.

Lack of staff has made it tough to handle all the cases coming in and often a lack of evidence can make it hard to verify a complaint, Chief Building Official Jesse Oswald said.

Many of the reported issues happen after hours or on weekends when there isn’t a code officer available to investigate, he said.

The city allocated money in the latest budget to hire a code enforcement officer that would be dedicated to addressing short-term rental complaints. The contract position has not yet been filled, Oswald said, but once hired the code officer will respond to after-hour and weekend complaints and document violations that will help with enforcement.

Seeking feedback on future changes

Residents opposed to short-term rentals said the new regulations don’t address noise or public safety concerns or overconcentration of rentals in certain parts of the city.

Piazza, the northwest Santa Rosa resident, said the city needs to take additional steps to curb bad behavior and to address complaints more quickly. She filed several complaints with the city that are still pending two months later, she said.

Marsha Shotwell, who has lived on Manzanita Avenue since the late 1970s, said her northeast Santa Rosa neighborhood used to be a great place to live and raise a family but now the sounds of people partying and loud music are common on weekends and she has observed several public safety hazards. She has tried to address the issue with the guests and operator to no avail, she said.

“We went from living in a wonderful neighborhood to a living hell,” she said.

Rental operators pushed back against the criticism and said most rentals are responsibly managed. Rentals provide extra income for operators, help support Sonoma County’s tourism economy valued at about $2 billion a year and have provided housing to residents during fires and other emergencies, operators said.

Vacation rentals generated just under $1 million — $970,000 — in lodging taxes in fiscal year 2021-2022, which ended June 30, and brought in about $300,000 in permit fees, according to the city.

Supporters said complaints are overblown and they worried the loudest voices are guiding city policy and creating further divide in the community.

Gary Lentz, who has operated a short-term rental for seven years, opposed the cap and said the additional regulations punished the industry as a whole rather than targeting bad actors. The majority of operators are working in good faith and are willing to work with the city to help craft regulation, educate operators and address concerns.

Staff this fall will begin public outreach to gather feedback on additional changes to the ordinance.

Council members have indicated they’d like to look at the permit fee structure and possibly adding or increasing fees to cover cost of enforcement. They also want to strengthen enforcement efforts by raising fines and lowering the threshold to pull a permit.

Feedback will be presented to the Economic Development Subcommittee early next year and changes will be drafted after.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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