Sebastopol council may approve moratorium on long-term, non-hosted vacation rentals

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It started with a Sebastopol couple’s desire to use a small, two-bedroom house they had purchased downtown for short-term vacation rentals, scheduled around visits from friends and family in far-away Germany.

But city officials reasoned that losing even a single unit from the community’s limited residential inventory by converting it to visitors’ use might be too much of a sacrifice, given the severity of the housing shortage in Sebastopol and the surrounding region. The City Council voted unanimously last May to reject a permit for the couple.

On Tuesday, as part of what has become a monthslong discussion on the topic, the council is likely to approve a moratorium on any such “non-hosted” vacation rentals — where there is no homeowner on-site — in excess of 30 days a year.

The suspension is intended to give city planning commissioners and elected council members time to decide what kinds of additional limits and conditions they might want to impose on such non-hosted vacation rentals, officials said.

Vice Mayor Patrick Slayter likened it to “hitting the pause button,” allowing officials to debate policy issues without the pressure of a pending application. He noted that other North Bay municipalities already have developed their own restrictions for similar reasons.

“You don’t have to look very far beyond the boundaries of Sebastopol to other communities to see they have regulations that are significantly more stringent than you might imagine on non-hosted rentals,” he said.

The plan is not to ban vacation rentals, Slayter said, though the city is aware of several dozen vacation rentals advertised online that are not legally registered with the city, and may soon be notified to get into compliance.

Permits could still be granted for hosts who want to rent out one or two rooms in their home while they are there, or who want to let out their whole house or granny unit for up to 30 days a year while they stay somewhere else.

That way, the units can still remain permanently occupied while allowing someone to earn a little income while away on business or vacation, officials said.

“The whole point is to preserve housing for long-term residents,” said Kari Svanstrom, the city’s planning director.

Sebastopol, a city of about 8,000 people, has 3,400 households in it and very slow rate of growth.

Between eight and 24 new residential construction permits have been approved annually since 2015, Svanstrom said, so even losing one unit to transient occupancy matters.

Thus, city housing and planning policies repeatedly stress policies that promote and preserve a range of housing options, including affordable housing stock.

The city last year also updated its zoning ordinance. It included provisions for vacation rentals, with new permitting requirements and considerations, such as whether a newly approved vacation rental would “result in an overconcentration of such uses in a neighborhood.”

Faced last March with a conditional use permit application from owners who wanted to rent out a home they had purchased on Johnson Street to vacationers for most of the year, planning commissioners conceded the idea seemed to conflict with city policy in some ways.

At the same time, it also seemed to meet the basic requirements for a vacation rental permit.

The commission ended up approving a two-year permit by a 5-1 vote. The dissenting voter, Commissioner Linda Kelley, subsequently appealed the decision to the City Council so elected officials would have to reconcile the conflict.

The council upheld the appeal, though Mayor Neysa Hinton recused herself from the discussion because she rents out a room in her home.

On Tuesday, the council will consider a moratorium that would initially last for 45 days, if approved, though it could be extended.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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