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Sonoma County supervisors poised to extend cap on vacation rentals

More than 400 properties that have rental permits but are inactive could be purged from the rolls to make room for new operators.|

Sonoma County planning officials could purge more than 400 inactive vacation rental permits from the county’s rolls, offering some breathing room for new rental operators as the Board of Supervisors is poised Tuesday to extend by nearly two years a temporary cap on existing short-term rentals.

The existing limit, set at 1,948 since Aug. 18, was billed as a necessary immediate step to maintain critical housing stock amid wildfire recovery efforts. And supervisors can extend it for a maximum of 22 months and 15 days while staff works to compile data and craft a comprehensive strategy around vacation rentals.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose west county district took a direct hit in the recent Walbridge and Meyers fires, said it was “very clear” that vacation rentals hurt housing stock, even if the most recent study cited by the county is now five years old.

The 400-plus properties found by officials to be inactive have tax forms on file allowing them to operate as short-term rentals but no record of having paid those taxes, indicating they are not be used as vacation rentals, according to the county.

Should those sites be cleared from the rolls, the county would have open slots for new operators, perhaps softening industry opposition to a cap that could extend to August 2022. It would apply only to vacation rentals in the unincorporated parts of Sonoma County.

“It’s absolutely a solid compromise,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “It’s really important that tourism comes back. It hasn’t completely gone, but it certainly is wounded.”

Any move to pull those permits would be subject to due process, and property owners would have opportunity to give reasons for inactivity or pay back taxes that might be due, according to county documents.

The board’s Tuesday hearing is the latest in a years-long tug-of-war over regulation of short-term rentals, which has previously stood out as one of the county’s most controversial issues. The proliferation of those rentals within and outside city boundaries has been called out as the region wrestles with a deep housing shortage exacerbated by wildfires, which have claimed more than 5,600 local homes in the past three years.

“There absolutely is a need (for a cap),” said Susan Gorin, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “We’ve lost another 159 homes in Sonoma County due to the (Walbridge and Meyers fires), adding onto the homes that have still not been rebuilt from the 2017 and 2019 fires. I think we need to extend the cap to allow us time to find the staff resources.”

The Tubbs and Nuns fires in 2017 destroyed 5,334 homes. The 2019 Kincade fire, the county’s largest ever, at nearly 80,000 acres, claimed 174 homes. Rebuilding work has yet to replace even half of the total losses.

The North Bay Association of Realtors did not respond to a request for comment.

The new cap does not apply vacation rentals on the Sonoma Coast, which is governed under regulations overseen by the state Coastal Commission.

Outside of the coast, homeowners seeking to permit a new vacation rental in the unincorporated area would be placed on a waiting list until more existing permits are purged, a fairly regular occurrence, according to the county.

Officials with Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning and land-use agency, did not respond to a request for more information about enforcement plans and the waiting list.

Since the Board of Supervisors approved 45-day cap on Aug. 18, 12 permits have expired due to a change in ownership or lack of use, and six new permits have been approved, according to county documents.

Supervisors say they haven’t been bombarded with outreach on the potential extension, but they still still expect a robust discussion centered on the length of the proposed cap. Any decision is simply a placeholder and could be amended, they said.

The county’s housing crisis won’t be resolved with caps or moratoriums on vacation rentals, where demand is only increasing, Zane said.

“If we’re trying to increase our housing stock, guess what ― it isn’t going to happen through vacation rentals,” Zane said. “It happens when elected officials develop a backbone and encourage and allow for the building of affordable housing.”

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

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