Seeking the sweet spot on vacation rentals

After a dozen years, Sonoma County supervisors are still working out the rules for vacation rentals.

Don’t judge them too harshly. It isn’t easy finding a sweet spot on this contentious issue. For some people, vacation rentals are a welcome source of income or a pleasant way to explore new places. For others, they are a nuisance, especially if guests monopolize parking or host noisy parties into the wee hours.

There is a lot to like in the most recent proposal, which is on the board’s Tuesday agenda.

Recommendations from the Planning Commission would tighten the rules for parking, noise and trash, require annual licensing, cap the number of guests, limit the number of vacation rentals in some heavily impacted areas and ban them entirely in low-density neighborhoods. The proposed rules cover unincorporated areas, except the coastal zone, which is regulated separately.

The rules would apply to homes rented for up to 30 days by individual owners, management companies and online platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO.

Not everyone is going to be happy about ratcheting up the restrictions on vacation rentals. But here’s a twist you might not have anticipated: Among the critics are some longtime Sonoma County property managers who say the proposed rules don’t go far enough.

The property managers support the framework but say the rules should apply retroactively, and violators should be subject to stiff fines. Under the county proposal, existing rentals would be exempt from some of the new standards, potentially including a limit on additional daytime guests, until they are sold.

Liza Graves, a local property manager who is president of the Sonoma County Hospitality Association, said the county needs tools to crack down on existing problems that alienate neighbors and taint the reputation of all vacation rentals.

“Trimming the tree canopy is not getting at the root of the problem,” Graves told the editorial board.

To counter any reservations about applying new rules to existing rentals, the property managers cite a Sonoma County ordinance governing commercial kennels that retroactively imposed an annual licensing requirement and authorized county officials to impose conditions to protect public health, safety and welfare.

“Requiring existing and new vacation rentals to meet the same new standards promotes ease of enforcement, a consistent regulatory approach and eliminates public confusion about what standard historically problematic vacation rentals must meet,” a lawyer for the rental managers wrote in a letter to the supervisors .

They also urged the supervisors to amend the county code to enable steeper fines for repeat violations now allowed by state law.

We aren’t lawyers, but that makes sense to us. The supervisors shouldn’t exempt 1,000 or more existing vacation rental operators if, in fact, they have the authority to require everyone to follow the same rules. And a stick — steep fines or even license revocation — would encourage compliance.

Tourism pumps about $2 billion a year into Sonoma County’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs and businesses. Vacation rentals have been a popular lodging option here for decades — long before internet platforms like VRBO came along. Like hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, they generate transient occupancy tax dollars that help pay for local services. But local government must ensure that vacation rentals are good neighbors.

The supervisors meet at 8:30 am Tuesday at the county administration building in Santa Rosa and online at sonoma-county.legistar.com.

You can send letters to the editor letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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