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As Santa Rosa neighborhoods simmer over vacation rentals, council poised to vote on temporary rules

Architect Dale Sessions moved last year from San Francisco to Santa Rosa’s forested and upscale Montecito Meadows neighborhood for the peace and quiet.

But his dreams of tranquility have been shattered by a short-term rental property next door, he said.

Advertised online as a private Wine Country retreat among the redwoods, the property regularly hosts revelry that torments Sessions and his neighbors, who say they’ve endured the coming and going of strangers and carousing of large groups, keeping them awake at night and raising fire fears with cigarette smoking and gatherings around a fire pit.

“I didn’t move here to live next to a hotel,“ Sessions said. ”When there’s nothing going on over there the loudest noise we have around here are the squirrels.“

Among the worst offenses were a series of weddings held over the summer, Sessions and two of his neighbors said in recent interviews.

“Without regulations they can do whatever they want,” neighbor Monica Bryant, a teacher and artist, said of such properties.

In response, Sessions and his neighbors have agitated for regulations on short-term rentals. Their outcry has been joined by other cluster of neighbors in the Montecito area. Combined with the worries of public safety officials and affordable housing advocates, their complaints have coalesced into a push for emergency action by city leaders.

Some residents, including Sessions, say the move is way overdue. Santa Rosa officials have lagged behind other Sonoma County cities and the county in writing rules for such properties, which have exploded in popularity through websites like Airbnb and Vrbo.

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday evening will vote on adopting an “urgency ordinance” regulating the properties, following an accelerated policy making process in recent months. If passed, the ordinance could impact more than 350 properties officials believe to currently be on the vacation rental market.

They would be newly subject to rules governing noise, occupancy levels and how managers and owners must respond to complaints.

Dr. Harry Albers, a Santa Rosa dentist, author and lecturer who owns the rental property next-door to Sessions, says neighbors complaints about the house are overblown and are fueling an overreaction by City Hall.

He allowed his house to be booked for weddings over the summer, he said, but stopped the practice after a meeting with his concerned neighbors. “They were lovely weddings,” he said.

Albers no longer holds events, he says, and groups that do stay — the property is currently listed as holding 13 guests for around $1,400 a night on Airbnb — are respectful, he said.

“What (Sessions) calls hell is people having dinner once or twice a month on a deck and talking to each other,” Albers said.

Albers considers his property an asset to the city and county, hosting travelers and clients for restaurants and wineries. His guests are families and friends sharing time together who do not want hotel rooms, he said.

The dispute is a microcosm of conflicts reported around the city, but especially in the attractive, wooded enclaves of eastern Santa Rosa, where longstanding residents report a marked increase in properties converting to short-term rentals in recent years.

Those reports have driven worries from public safety officials about fire safety and evacuation routes, and sparked fears of diminishing housing stock and fallout on neighborhood character.

Tax revenue also is at stake. Officials say Santa Rosa could be missing out on as much as $1.2 million a year in revenue through uncollected lodging taxes and business fees from unregistered rentals.

Officials have not thoroughly studied how many homes have been taken off the market for use as short-term rentals. The city, as of July, had around 197 registered short-term rental properties, according to officials. But an outside firm provided an analysis to the city that found as many as 358 short-term rental properties advertising on various websites dedicated to the industry.

Albers is a longtime resident who converted his house to a rental property but said he still lives there most of the time. There’s some evidence that other properties in Santa Rosa’s wealthier hillside neighborhoods are being targeted by investors, however, who see a chance to make money and pay for a mortgage by buying large homes and renting them to groups of Wine Country visitors.

David Long, an engineer who lives near a property on Sunrise Avenue that also has drawn a litany of neighbor complaints, has been tracking the ownership of some short-term rentals in his neighborhood.

Long identified three properties that have recently converted to short-term rentals targeting large groups. Records indicate all three are owned by limited liability corporations that can be traced back to a San Francisco resident, who could not be immediately reached for comment.

Such properties are earning money for their owners, but because of holes in regulations are doing so at the cost of neighbors’ quality of life, Long said.

Victoria Fleming, the Santa Rosa councilwoman who represents Montecito Meadows and surrounding neighborhoods, said investors snapping up homes is a citywide concern even if they turn out to be targeting expensive neighborhoods. The city needs housing stock at all price points, she said.

Otherwise, “you have people who are high income looking to live in middle-income housing, middle income who are looking to live in lower-income housing and then lower-income people ending up homeless,” she said.

Even the 358 properties advertised represent 10% of the city’s professed goals for increasing housing stock in coming years, Fleming said. Santa Rosa lost about 3,000 homes in the 2017 fires and about 30 more in last year’s Glass fire.

With the possibility of more homes becoming short-term rentals while the city crafts more permanent regulations, Fleming may propose a moratorium on new rentals at Tuesday’s meeting, she said. Such a moratorium would apply to any property that is not registered and not paying lodging taxes, Fleming said.

A moratorium is supported by many of those calling for more regulations, but opposed by a number of advocates for the short-term rental industry. Such a step would harm people who depend on income from rentals for their livelihoods, property owners say.

Dan Gudino, 41, said the industry offered him a way to improve his family’s lot. Gudino, a longtime Santa Rosa resident, has been building a business by managing a few rentals of his own and by providing management services to other Sonoma County property owners.

Gudino’s business employs family members and friends in cleaning and home improvement jobs, he said. He was interviewed last week by phone while attending an industry conference in Texas.

Gudino hopes to expand into providing more rental housing for construction and healthcare workers who need long stays in the city, as well as tourists, he said. He does not like the stories of neighbors subjected to “party homes,” but he didn’t think such complaints should drive broad policy making. Many aspects of the proposed urgency ordinance were acceptable to him.

“A smart ordinance will help my business,” he said. “It will weed out competition that is not professional. I side more with my neighborhood and the community than the actual guests.”

Sessions and his neighbors said the proposed ordinance is unenforceable and leaves residents with the continued burden of policing the rental properties in their neighborhoods.

Since March, police have responded to calls about events at Albers’ property 16 times, Santa Rosa Police Department Spokesperson Chris Mahurin told The Press Democrat. Regulations did not allow him to say who made the calls, he said.

Albers has accused Sessions of “harassing” both city officials and Albers’ paying guests.

One recent review on Airbnb described a neighbor who “yelled obscenities at us and told us to go home” as the visitors chatted and laughed at around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening. Sessions has also used a large flashing red light like that mounted on an ambulance to try and ruin his guests’ experience, Albers said.

Sessions admitted to yelling at guests from his balcony and mounting the flashing light in an attempt to drive the gatherings next door inside. His actions are necessary, he said, because city officials have dropped the ball on regulations.

“It’s pure frustration,” he said. “When you don’t get any help from the city what else am I supposed to do, go inside and shut the door and live like a hermit?”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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