Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approves overhaul of vacation rental regulations

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a series of sweeping changes to local regulations for vacation rental homes during a four-hour meeting Tuesday on the long-simmering issue.

In a 4-0 vote, the board adopted rules that will widen areas where rentals are prohibited, establish caps on rentals in other areas, amend policies governing rentals on the coast and allow pending permit applications to continue through the process.

The board also approved a new vacation rental license program that will standardize the requirements for all vacation rental permit holders outside cities.

Some of those requirements include quiet hours from 9 pm to 7 am — a one hour increase from the current 10 pm start time — a cap on guests set by number of bedrooms, parking standards and other rules such as limits on outside burning like campfires.

Some of the new rules, such as the guest cap and parking requirements, will not apply to vacation home owners who acquired their permits under the existing county rules. Other standards, including the new quiet hours, will apply to all rentals in county governed areas, said Gary Helfrich, county planner.

Public reaction to the proposed regulations was mixed. Some full-time residents felt the county should do more to regulate existing rentals, while a few residents involved in the vacation rental industry said they were OK with rules outlined in the new program and others felt they were too restrictive.

The changes are intended to address residents’ concerns about vacation rentals’ impact on noise, public safety and housing stock — issues that have long dominated the county’s debate on vacation rentals and recently led the board to extend a moratorium on issuing permits for new vacation rentals .

David Applebaum, a Sonoma County resident, said the changes favored vacation rental owners.

“This is the opportunity to start from scratch, to be bold,” Applebaum said. “Instead we’re coddling the owners of these vacation homes.”

The board supported a request from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins who asked county staff to study higher fees and stronger penalties for vacation home owners found to be in violation of county rules and explore ways to limit light pollution.

Hopkins called the current $100 violation fine a “slap on the wrist” for rental operators whose nightly rates run into the four figures. She suggested the county increase its fees to $1,000 and allow the option to revoke a permit for up to five years.

The board also approved a measure that limits permits to the “natural” human owner of the property, meaning a corporation cannot apply for a permit.

The approved regulations are due to take effect in 30 days and will apply to unincorporated Sonoma County.

In 2021, there were an estimated 2,459 local short-term rentals in the county. Of those, about 1,485 were in unincorporated areas governed by the county, according to a recent economic study commissioned by the county.

The rentals help support a local tourism economy valued at about $2 billion a year, and vacation rental owners pay lodging taxes that help support local services.

The county already prohibits vacation rentals in neighborhoods zoned for mid and high-density housing. The board’s vote Tuesday expands that restriction to low density (R1) zones, which typically include residential areas that are not in a downtown area but are still connected to public utilities, staff from the county’s planning department said Tuesday.

The board also agreed to establish caps that would limit rentals to 5% to 10% of existing housing stock in other low density residential zones. The intention behind the move is to prohibit or limit rentals in areas where they could be “detrimental” to neighborhoods, a county staff report said.

County staff is due to study those areas, collect community feedback and bring recommendations back to the board.

Both Sonoma Valley and Guerneville have high concentrations of vacation rentals in R1 zones, but the new ban is not expected to impact Sonoma Valley much because of exclusion zones already in place, Helfrich said.

Guerneville, where the local economy is heavily reliant on seasonal tourism, is a different story.

“The impact would be greatest in the Guerneville community,” said Helfrich.

Hopkins, who represents the west county, in turn said she supported a more nuanced approach to zoning restrictions, particularly in Guerneville. She explained her aim is to ensure neighborhoods that historically hosted vacation rentals are not disrupted, and protect other neighborhoods that do not have that history from being overrun with rentals — a suggestion supported by her fellow board members.