Number of occupants, revocation of permit remain key issues

SONOMA COUNTY -- The Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department has retooled its proposed vacation rentals guidelines in unincorporated parts of the county yet again after receiving feedback from the public on changes that would permit such rentals but step up enforcement.

In its most recent staff report based on feedback heard in June, the PRMD took into account some of the more unpopular provisions while maintaining the line on others, among them the proposed amount of persons allowed in a vacation rental per night.

The county said one of the primary issues being debated is the overnight occupancy limit, which is based on the number of bedrooms. The new rules would cap the amount of visitors, based on the number of rooms, at two people per room, with the allowance of an additional two people outside of a room – for example no more than 12 people at a five-bedroom vacation rental.

A distinction was made for septic and sewer properties -- with septic properties not permitted the additional two people out of concern for not exceeding limits of the building, property and “neighborhood compatibility.” However, an exception would be granted if the homeowner obtained a special-use permit from the county.

Those in favor of less restrictive rules on vacation rentals said the standard, known as “2+2,” should be the same for sewer or septic, pointing out that properties on septic are used primarily in the dry season. The county maintained its original position.

“While there continues to be concern over the possibility of exceeding the local design load of the system and causing degradation of water quality or septic failures … vacation rentals have operated without limits for many years and the reduced occupancy limits … would be a substantial improvement over existing conditions,” the latest report said.

Complaints about vacation rentals reached a peak in January of this year, when a deck in Guerneville collapsed due to overcrowding.

The initial proposed changes also included enforcement measures that would permit the county to revoke a permit should a homeowner be found in violation of the new policies. But after hearing concern from vacation rental proponents that they could be unfairly targeted by neighbors or arbitrarily singled out for minor violations, the county dropped the revocation provisions and instead referred to the County Code, which allows for a hearing on code enforcement.

According to the county, vacation rentals account for about 20 percent of the Transient Occupancy Tax revenue at about $2 million annually.

Any proposed changes to vacation rentals would not include homes in the coastal region of the county.

The revised standards will be forwarded to the county Board of Supervisors after more discussion sometime in the fall.

Napa County, meanwhile, recently voted to uphold a ban on vacation rentals in unincorporated parts of the county.