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Sonoma County narrows cap on vacation rentals in Russian River, Sonoma Valley neighborhood

A countywide cap on the number of allowable vacation rentals has been lifted, with Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday voting to narrow their focus to key areas along the Russian River and in the Sonoma Valley — two areas with the highest concentration of such properties outside of city limits.

The change, targeting areas where vacation rentals range from 10% to 43% of the housing stock, would apply to a single neighborhood in the Sonoma Valley and a long stretch of the lower Russian River, impacting more than 3,500 homeowners from Rio Nido to Monte Rio.

County officials and many neighbors say the concentration of rentals in those areas poses a threat to residential character, neighborhood stability, public safety and quality of life. An extension of the cap in those areas until August 2022 will give the county time to gather data and craft policy to address those concerns, officials said.

“My biggest goal is that this … buys us the time to have that conversation about concentration,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the Russian River area. She said the county will have time to craft policy that is more responsive to neighborhood needs. “I believe there is pressure right now for this sort of thing.”

But Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose south county district includes far fewer vacation rentals, called appeals to neighborhood values and character subjective. He also wondered whether land use policy is even the right avenue for addressing concerns among neighbors that include poor behavior by rental guests.

Still, Rabbitt joined his fellow supervisors in approving the measure, which will cap vacation rental permits at 299 in specific areas along the Russian River and limit to 13 the number of vacation rentals in a 30-home neighborhood that includes Theodor Lane in the Sonoma Valley, where short-term rentals have proliferated just outside of two areas where they’re already banned.

The targeted ordinance replaces a hard cap of 1,948 vacation rentals in county-governed areas that was first approved in August. That limit is set to expire Dec. 31. The number of vacation rental permits still hovers near that number, county officials said. Expiring permits on existing rentals have allowed the county to continue issuing new permits within the cap.

Sonoma County staff plan to ramp up outreach in the coming months, including town hall meetings, digital surveys, targeted mapping and a series of meetings with first responders, local advisory groups and industry leaders — engagement that will help lay groundwork for future policy on vacation rentals.

In her final meeting on the board, Supervisor Shirlee Zane noted that the dilemma had traced nearly her entire tenure in office. The county has responded with exclusion zones for rentals and the debate even wedged its way into the county’s proliferating burn zones, where vacation rentals are banned amid rebuilding.

The issue emerged as a significant political flashpoint in 2010 after a deck collapsed at a Guerneville-area vacation rental house where a crowd of young people were partying. One teenage girl was seriously injured, and the deck was later found to have been built without proper permits.

“Ten years of dealing with vacation rentals,” Zane said, emphatically. “Does it ever end?”

Residents and real estate interests jockeyed about the proper regulatory approach, but nearly all agreed an uptick in enforcement of existing rules should be a major part of any future policy brought forward by the county.

Some residents along the Russian River expressed concerns about the regional cap’s impact on sources of income and retirement money for vacation rental operators. Others said curbs on vacation rental proliferation were needed to preserve neighborhood character.

A map of an area in the lower Russian River that will have a vacation rental cap until August 2022. (Sonoma County)
A map of an area in the lower Russian River that will have a vacation rental cap until August 2022. (Sonoma County)
A map of an area in the Sonoma Valley that will have a vacation rental cap until August 2022. (Sonoma County)
A map of an area in the Sonoma Valley that will have a vacation rental cap until August 2022. (Sonoma County)

Complaints, particularly from residents along Theodor Lane, ratcheted up pressure on supervisors to act. The reports included issues with loud parties, limousines full of revelers and the recent delivery of three hot tubs along one narrow stretch of road in the Sonoma Valley.

“Why do these real estate investors’ rights supersede those of local residents?” asked Leigh Cavalier, a homeowner in the area. “I’m so sick of this, I’m ready to sell. You people have got to do something.”

Rabbitt, though, said the behaviors couldn’t be solved with a cap and urged his fellow supervisors to mull a broader look at the problem — beyond land use and zoning.

“This shows Sonoma County should not use land use regulations to control people’s behavior,” Rabbitt said, adding that the county should look at unforeseen consequences and adopt a comprehensive approach.

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin, who represents Sonoma Valley, said she’s committed to responding to those concerns.

“If we can come up with a better way of enforcement, I’m all ears — I’m all in,” Gorin said. “I want to return our neighborhoods to our neighbors. That’s my purpose.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Sonoma Valley homeowner Leigh Cavalier’s name.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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