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Sonoma County supervisors impose temporary cap on vacation home rentals

In a move aimed at protecting affordable housing and addressing complaints about unruly house parties during the coronavirus pandemic, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday temporarily approved capping the number of vacation rental homes allowed in most unincorporated parts of the county.

The emergency ordinance immediately limits vacation rentals to 1,943 homes, representing the total rental permits already issued or approved.

The measure, which passed with the support of all four supervisors present at a virtual meeting, will be in effect for 45 days. Then the board likely will extend the temporary rental permit limit, and an extension could remain in place for up to roughly two years.

The temporary action is intended to stabilize the county’s vacation rental stock, while supervisors gather data and public input for a permanent policy to curb the potential detrimental effect of rentals on local neighborhoods and the county’s housing market.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who strongly advocated for the cap, said, while maintaining the local tourism economy is vital to her west county district, a growing number of vacation rentals are eroding small communities along the lower Russian River.

“What I want to do is find a way to create a balance,” Hopkins said. “It’s not: no vacation rentals anywhere, ever.”

Board Chair Susan Gorin, who represents the Sonoma Valley, agreed with Hopkins that new homebuyers and outside investors increasingly are converting affordable single-family houses to luxury short-term rentals in concentrated tourist destinations.

There has been a roughly 45% increase in vacation rental permits issued in Sonoma County since the 2017 North Bay wildfires, according to county staff.

Gorin also pointed to increasing complaints from residents about parties at short-term rentals, in violation of public health orders during the pandemic.

“We do have a prohibition on large parties and yet we know that folks in vacation rentals insist on having social gatherings,” she said.

Supervisors James Gore and Shirlee Zane expressed concerns about limiting permits for vacation rentals, but ultimately agreed to the temporary cap as the county works toward a long-term solution.

The new cap does not apply to vacation rental properties in the Sonoma Coast region, where county rental permits are not required. Single-room rentals and guest cottages in which a property owner remains in the residence, as well as bed and breakfasts, also are exempt. In addition, rentals within city limits are not subject to the new rule.

No additional vacation rental permits can be approved until the total falls below the cap number. Existing permits expire when a property changes hands. Any new permit applications will be placed on a waitlist and distributed in the order applications are received.

A main reason for the timing of the temporary cap is to prevent a “gold-rush scenario” of would-be vacation rental operators applying for permits before any new restrictions go into effect, supervisors said.

On June 23, the board had directed the County Administrator's Office to freeze issuing additional rental permits and put any new applications for permits on hold. The new ordinance will allow all 36 completed applications filed between that date and Tuesday to be included under the cap.

Tatiana McWilliams, a real estate agent in Healdsburg, recently bought a house outside the city limits in an area zoned for vacation homes. She was surprised to find her rental application was one of the 36 that were put on hold.

McWilliams should receive her permit under the new rules, but her clients who had planned to rent their homes part-time may now have to wait. She said some are counting on rental income to help cover their mortgages and property taxes.

“It’s become so expensive to hold your property in Healdsburg that a lot of homeowners need that income,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors agreed they did not intend the cap to last longer than a few months, especially as some homeowners struggle financially amid the pandemic.

In voting for the emergency ordinance, Supervisor Gore urged county staff to quickly work toward arranging public outreach efforts, gathering data and coming up with long-term policy options.

“Aye, to a lot more work to do,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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