Perhaps aside from the issue of cannabis, vacation rentals have been the most time-consuming subject of study for Sonoma County government over the past several years.

When the Board of Supervisors finally approved a hard-earned vacation rental policy in 2016, it included a number of “exclusion zones” — areas where new vacation rental (VR) permits are not to be issued because short-term rentals would be incompatible with a neighborhood’s residential character.

The original exclusion zones the Supervisors established in 2016 were in neighborhoods in Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Agua Caliente and Boyes Hot Springs, among other areas in the county. Since that time, a handful of neighborhoods have applied to the county for their own “X-zone,” or exclusion-zone, permit to prevent vacation rentals in their neighborhood.

Two of the new X-zone applications came from neighborhoods in the Sonoma Valley, and last week, the first X-zone permit was approved by the Board of Supervisors for the residents of Slattery Road, a narrow residential lane between Kenwood and Glen Ellen.

Michael Morrison is the Slattery Road resident who spearheaded the application for an X-zone, a process which started in the spring of 2016.

“This is a one-lane, dead-end road,” he said, “with only a few turnouts here and there that locals know about.”

The turnouts are indeed hard to see for a first-time driver, and the road is also marked by numerous speedbumps and driveway intersections, potentially making navigation a challenge.

It seemed to the residents that Slattery could not really support vacation rental traffic. But they were concerned that more and more short-term rentals were popping up in nearby Kenwood and Glen Ellen — “like mushrooms after a rain,” as Morrison put it — so a dozen or so Slattery residents got together and decided to apply for the X-zone exclusion, to cover the 17 houses on the three-mile long road.

They filed their application in October of 2016, although two property owners refused to sign. One didn’t want his plans to be constrained by a new more restrictive zoning (he has since put that property up for sale); and the other — a second-home owner from Texas — applied for and received a vacation rental permit after the X-zone application was in process.

Morrison recognized that the county was “obligated to approve that,” though he said it underscored the “real urgency to why we needed to go ahead with this.”

Following the October 2016 application, the Slattery homeowners group worked through the process with county planner Brian Keefer and held an appearance before the Planning Commission in the spring of 2017. But they didn’t make their final appearance before the supervisors until almost a year later.

The process took longer than they expected — and cost more money. Two years, and a tab of over $10,000 — the original fee of $5,582 for a zone change, plus an additional amount tagged on at $140 per hour for Permit Sonoma staff time.

“The neighbors have put a lot of effort and money into this process, but we felt it was necessary to protect our neighborhood,” said Morrison at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Then there were the October fires, which were accompanied by what Morrison called “their obvious disruptions.”

The Tubbs Fire came within a quarter mile to the north of Slattery, and the Nuns Fire a quarter mile to the south. Ultimately, the properties on Slattery emerged undamaged.

Two years after first applying, their X-zone application finally came before the Supervisors on March 20 when, after largely sympathetic comments from the four seated supervisors, they got unanimous approval.

Ironically, Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose 1st District Slattery Road is located, was unable to attend the meeting as she was appearing before a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. on the impacts of the October fires on the county’s budgets and infrastructure.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the 5th District in West County, seemed keenly interested and encouraged by the efforts of the Slattery residents.

“Congratulations for making it through two years and $11,000,” said Hopkins. “I don’t know if that’s congratulations or an apology, honestly.”

Chairman James Gore also raised concerns over the costly application process, and Supervisor Shirlee Zane asked if the Permit Sonoma website had a page clearly explaining the process and fees.

“Do we have something on our website that says, ‘Want to apply for a Vacation Rental Exclusion Zone? Here’s how to do it, 1-2-3-4-5.’”

“We can certainly upgrade the information we have on our website,” said Permit Sonoma director Tennis Wick. But he was quick to point out, “that when you divide the cost among 17 people, it’s about $650 a piece.”

For her part Hopkins cited communities in Monte Rio that might well like to have an X-zone exclusion, but might be “economically disadvantaged” from pursuing it.

“I think we ought to make it easy for people (to apply),” said Zane. “Then you have to find a way to mitigate the cost.”

Zane wondered, too, if some form of waiver for the application fee might be investigated.

But at the end of discussion, the 4-0 vote was reassuring to the residents of Slattery Road.

“We had kind of a high-five after the meeting, and just a sigh of relief,” said Morrison. He was glad that there was only one VR permit that got through the process before the zoning appeal was approved.

“One horse out of the barn is enough.”

The next neighborhood whose X-zone appeal is up for supervisors’ review is Morningside Mountain, a much larger — 64 properties — neighborhood south of Glen Ellen. Their hearing is scheduled for the Board of Supervisors’ meeting today, April 3.

Contact Christian Kallen at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.