Sonoma County will keep in place at least through the end of the year a cap on the number of vacation rentals allowed to operate outside of cities, as county supervisors Tuesday sought to buy time before potentially imposing a longer-lasting limit.
The measure, adopted on an emergency basis, extends the temporary countywide cap of 1,948 vacation rental properties enacted by the board Aug. 18, but it does so on a shorter timeline. A proposal by staff would have kept the limit in place for up to 22 months.
The limit also has some wiggle room, part of what Supervisor Lynda Hopkins called “a very messy compromise,” that could have the board revisit the cap if it is reached between now and the end of 2020.
Hopkins spurred the wider discussion, with support from Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair. The two represent opposite sides of the county, the west and east, with the highest concentration of vacation rentals outside of cities.
The measure is intended to prevent transformation of a wider share of existing housing into short-term rentals, ensuring more homes remain for residents.
Industry groups have generally bristled at such limits and the board has balked in previous years at setting a hard cap on vacation rentals, wary of their value for property owners and the tourism-dependent local economy.
The full board was split over a cap and eventually settled on a compromise crafted by Hopkins: a shorter-term limit and the option of revisiting it before December if necessary to accommodate new applicants.
County staff, however, have pointed to at least 400 idle permits that could potentially be purged to open up more slots. They said it was unlikely new applicants would be denied in the next three months due to any constraints imposed by the cap.
The short-term limits are the first step in a planning effort expected to take at least a year. Staff members also promised to come back with more data in March before being able to craft a comprehensive strategy in the fall of 2021 at the earliest.
Gore said he would not support extending the cap beyond the first of the year. Zane said the county should be welcoming tourists back into Sonoma County, and a cap sends the wrong message. Rabbitt questioned whether the new regulation would resolve any of the long-standing issues with housing.
“I’ve never been a fan of moratoriums,” Rabbitt said. “I think they’re the absolute last nuclear option when it comes to land use. It’s the wrong way to go. I think the duty when a moratorium is brought forward is to move expeditiously forward to help solve the problem. But we haven’t identified what the problem is.”
For Hopkins and Gorin, the problem is two-fold: First, a dense concentration of vacation rentals along the lower Russian River and in the Sonoma Valley, leading to complaints of noise, traffic and general decline in quality of life; and second, their concerns about the proliferation of vacation rentals and the dwindling of affordable housing stock for residents.
The Russian River area has long existed as a summer-home destination, Hopkins acknowledged, but as those heydays faded, the region in recent decades became one of the most affordable places to live for Sonoma County residents.
A recent surge of interest and acquisitions in Sonoma County by Bay Area buyers, however, may mean that era on the river is over, too.
“To me, it’s about a tipping point,” Hopkins said. “If it becomes 50% to 60% vacation rentals, I’m sorry but that’s commercial.”
Public comment on the matter was nearly unanimous against a cap, even a temporary one. Residents who own second homes in Sonoma County and those in real estate who depend on that market said the regulation was short-sighted, financially burdensome for property owners and could result in a downward price spiral.
Mary Ann Bautista said she and her husband live in Alameda County, but bought “our dream property” in March just outside of Healdsburg with plans to retire there eventually.
“We are just sort of normal people ― not big tech money people,” Bautista said. “We know we will need to partially rent it out in order to afford to make our lifelong dream of retiring in Sonoma County a reality…We had no idea these restrictions were going to come.”
But others argued in favor of the ordinance.
“This is not for the landlords and the gentrifiers … the rest of us have regular jobs, and we’re trying to afford decent places,” said a man whose name wasn’t immediately clear on the Board of Supervisors’ Zoom-based meeting and could not be verified afterwards.
The county cap applies only to the unincorporated area and does not affect cities that allow vacation rentals.
Gore, who represents the north county, including Healdsburg, said he wouldn’t support a moratorium for his district going forward. He floated other compromises, including allowing unlimited vacation rental permits for county residents or putting “buyer beware” notifications on permits issued in the interim.
He, Zane and Rabbitt ultimately endorsed the short-term compromise proposed by Hopkins.
“To do any type of countywide cap is an overreach in my opinion,” Zane said. “The timing couldn’t be more wrong. We have all of these small businesses that are really hurting right now.”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or [email protected]