The subject of vacation rentals, and their impact on local neighborhoods, continues to trouble the slumber of Sonoma Valley residents.
The subject came to life three ways recently: in a recent discussion to revise the city’s Developmental Code by the Planning Commission; in an appeal to the county by residents to stop a licensed vacation rental house in the Diamond A district from continuing in business; and, just this week, in a hearing of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission to endorse a Glen Ellen neighborhood’s request to become a Vacation Rental Exclusion zone.
The SVCAC hearing concerned a neighborhood of just over 30 homes on Morningside Mountain Road, Vigilante Road and Oso Trail just south of the Sonoma Developmental Center, in Eldridge. Fifteen of the property owners signed a petition requesting the zoning change, which would prohibit the county from issuing new vacation rental permits. Their request, brought by Barry and Deborah Swain of Morningside Mountain Road, cited the unsafe conditions of the privately-maintained road, fire danger due to the remote locations and the locked gate at the entrance to the development, and their hope to maintain the rural residential character of the area.
But not all residents were receptive to the idea of a permanent, encoded exclusion zone that would prohibit current – and future – owners from using their property as vacation rentals. “Until there is really a problem, it doesn’t make sense to have all 32 people have their deeds affected, and place a restriction on owners for generations,” said Bill Brinton, a Morningside Mountain resident.
In contrast, as Permit and Resource Management Department Planner Liz Posternak pointed out, vacation rental permits expire with the sale or transfer of a deed, one of the terms of the county’s policy worked out over the past several years, and approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2016.
Those regulations also carved out local exceptions – the X Zone, or vacation rental exclusion zone – for those neighborhoods that don’t want to see additional vacation rental permits issued, such as the Sobre Vista neighborhood immediately south of the Morningside-Vigilante area.
Not all commissioners were entirely convinced that an exclusion zone was necessary in the heavily wooded, hillside “neighborhood” of 10-plus acre homes.
“It’s hard for me to see the residential character of these vast estates on Sonoma Mountain,” said committee vice-chair Sean Bellach.
The issue of fire danger was raised at several points, with some saying the local fire departments were capable of responding to emergencies even up the private Morningside Mountain and Vigilante roads, whatever the conditions.
But Susan Costello of Morningside Mountain cited a July incident where the Eldridge Volunteer Fire Department was unable to get through the locked gate at the entrance to the roads (across from Madrone Road on Arnold Drive) for some 15 minutes to respond to reports of smoke on the mountain, apparently unfamiliar with the keyed lockbox that fire responders use.
Though there is no direct correlation between rural fires and vacation rentals, some residents feared the unfamiliarity of visitors to the sensitive environment could increase fire risk. Betty Sherer of Morningside Mountain cited an Index-Tribune report of a May fire at a vacation rental on View Crest Drive in Diamond A, which erupted while vacation renters were using the property.
The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission is a “MAC,” or Municipal Advisory Council, formed through a Joint Powers Agreement between the County of Sonoma and the City of Sonoma. Its purpose is to provide a public forum to deliberate planning decisions impacting both the City of Sonoma and the unincorporated areas of the Sonoma Valley.
However, its votes and discussions are advisory only and have no binding effect on law or policy. It also has no budget, which means its discussions are not “noticed” to residents of affected areas. Several speakers at the recent meeting complained they didn’t know about the meeting until they read it in the Index-Tribune.
Pat Gilardi, 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin’s District Director, explained that the agenda were noticed only through announcements in the media, and they were publicly posted at the Boards of Supervisors office in Santa Rosa, at Sonoma's Community Meeting Room, and online at sonomacity.org.