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Sonoma County weighs new vacation rental rules for unincorporated areas

How to participate

The virtual hearing will be held Thursday at 1:05 p.m. Residents can participate in the hearing through Zoom or by phone.

For more information about the hearing, email PRMDVacationRentals@Sonoma-County.org, call 707-565-1900, option 5, or visit bit.ly/3IhzAmn.

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday will hold a public hearing to consider changes to a vacation rental ordinance covering unincorporated parts of the county.

The proposed updates include creating a system to license vacation rental properties and imposing new restrictions on the number of short-term rentals allowed in certain neighborhoods.

County planning staff said the licensing system would help address neighbors’ concerns over parking, noise and public safety by making it easier to enforce vacation rental regulations. The county would also launch a 24/7 hotline to respond to complaints.

The rental caps, which would limit short-term rentals to 10% of single-family homes in some communities, are meant to assuage worries about protecting available housing stock and preserving “neighborhood character.”

“These changes help make sure vacation rentals are a positive contributor to their neighborhoods and the communities that host them,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager at Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency.

In July of last year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed planning staff to develop the proposed rules and reach out to residents for recommendations. The county held over 20 public meetings to gather input on how to revamp the vacation rental program. If approved by the planning commission this week, the new rules could go before the board for a vote in April.

The moves followed an emergency ordinance approved by supervisors in summer 2020 that put a temporary hard cap on vacation rentals in the unincorporated county. Later that year, the cap was scaled back to apply only to a neighborhood in the Sonoma Valley and part of the lower Russian River. It’s set to expire Aug. 6.

Under the county’s current vacation rental law passed in 2016, new short-term rentals continue to be prohibited in specific unincorporated areas, communities in the Sonoma Valley, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa.

County staff are still working to determine which neighborhoods could see additional caps as part of the updated ordinance. Such restrictions would not apply to areas along the coast, where limits on the number of vacation rentals would likely need to be approved by the California Coastal Commission.

Frederik Norgaard, who owns two rental properties in Monte Rio, is upset the county is further regulating the vacation rental industry, which has a long history in the lower Russian River area and contributes significant lodging tax revenue. One of his main concerns is that local residents who point to short-term rentals for rising housing costs will abuse the system for filing complaints.

“You’re giving this lethal weapon to people who can complain, who didn’t like vacation rentals in the first place,” he said.

A recent economic study commissioned by the county found an increase in short-term rentals had “little to no connection” with local single-family home prices. However, the study, authored by Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler, noted recent research shows vacation rentals can put pressure on long-term home rental prices.

According to the study, there were an estimated 2,459 local short-term rentals in 2021, making up 2% of the roughly 138,945 single-family homes in the county. About 1,485 rentals were in unincorporated areas.

The virtual planning commission hearing will be held Thursday at 1:05 p.m. Residents can participate in the hearing through Zoom or by phone.

For more information about the hearing, email PRMDVacationRentals@Sonoma-County.org, call 707-565-1900, option 5, or visit sonomacounty.ca.gov/PRMD/Regulations/Vacation-Rentals.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Frederik Norgaard’s name.

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

How to participate

The virtual hearing will be held Thursday at 1:05 p.m. Residents can participate in the hearing through Zoom or by phone.

For more information about the hearing, email PRMDVacationRentals@Sonoma-County.org, call 707-565-1900, option 5, or visit bit.ly/3IhzAmn.

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