Sonoma supervisors weigh growing demand with safety, enforcement

SONOMA COUNTY --  The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is hoping to allow for more flexibility in permitting vacation rental homes while clarifying the level of enforcement.

The board passed a resolution of intent in November 2009 to change vacation-rental standards, and the Permit and Resource Management Department issued revised standards last week that will be debated in June and voted on by as soon as July.

With some 640 vacation rental homes in the county paying transient occupancy taxes, the county sought to come up with a clearer definition than had previously existed. Neighborhood complaints about noise, litter and rowdiness peaked in early January in the wake of a deck collapse in Guerneville.

The new rules would not apply to vacation rentals in the coastal regions of the county, which have had less complaints and many of which already operate as second homes, said Jennifer Barrett,  deputy director for planning at the PRMD.

Vacation rentals in Sonoma County account for about 20 percent of the total of TOT revenue, or about $2 million, Ms. Barrett said. Accordingly, as a means of retaining that source of revenue, the county sought to strike a balance between streamlining and enforcement.

Chief among the proposed changes would be the addition of a special-use permit. Such a permit would be needed by guests at vacation rentals who sought to hold events considered beyond the boundaries of the normal, $100 zoning permit needed for vacation rentals, Ms. Barrett said.

Additional changes would place a cap of no more than 12 people at a vacation rental home per night, with two per bedroom in a home that could have no more than five rooms, according to the drafted revisions. Additionally, no more than 16 people would be allowed at a home at one time, unless a special-events permit is granted.

Ms. Barrett said that, generally speaking, the cost of a special events permit would range from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the scale of the event. A minor-use permit could also be obtained for a to-be-determined amount. She said the range in cost would depend on the size of the property, septic or sewer capacity, whether neighbors protested the use and other factors that could be reviewed.

“And we know how many people will be attending each event,” she said. “That’s how the use permit provides flexibility.

“That’s a big shift,” she added. Previously, “We did not have any standards, and it’s become a burgeoning industry. It’s not something we want to restrict but it does need to be compatible.”

Meanwhile, Napa County Supervisors have supported an outright ban of such rentals, but recently voted to delay the implementation of the ban until Dec. 1 to hear debate and possibly a Measure J vote in November.

The proposed changes in Sonoma County to enforcement include directing complaints to a “contact person” identified in the zoning or use permit. Should complaints reoccur, they would be investigated by the PRMD. If validated, the contact person would receive a notice indicating an administrative penalty equal to the fair market rental rate for the days the property was in violation.

The county Board of Zoning Adjustments would also be able to revoke use permits on either the first or second violation. The contact person could demand a hearing on the complaint and penalty. If a permit is revoked, another one may not be granted for that location for at least a year.

The Board of Supervisors could also enact a yet-to-determined tax for “monitoring and enforcement” of vacation rentals or levying of the TOT.

A Planning Commission hearing is set for June 10. Recommendations would go to the Board of Supervisors for consideration for a possible vote in July.