BY BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Planning Commission endorsed Thursday a revised set of rules for vacation rentals that could ease the permitting burden on existing properties, but tighten some standards for new rentals in the county.
The new rules would apply to approximately 640 residential-style vacation rentals in the county, which currently are not governed by any ordinance. They would not apply to a smaller number of units along the coast, or to those on land zoned for intensive agriculture, which county officials have decided to deal with at a later date.
The commissioners’ 5-0 vote came after a lengthy discussion and more than two and a half hours of public testimony by property owners, rental managers, real estate professionals and concerned neighbors.
Still, the session was a short and relatively smooth follow-up to a June meeting in which rental property and real estate interests blasted the first draft of the ordinance as too restrictive and heavy-handed.
Commissioners made two key concessions Thursday: They increased the number of people who can stay overnight and visit units during the day, and they lowered the proposed cost of permitting existing vacation rental properties, eliminating the need for a more expensive and complicated use permit.
The Board of Supervisors will now have its chance to consider the rules Sept. 28.
The changes made by county staff after the June meeting, and others added by commissioners Thursday seemed to satisfy many in the audience.
The existing rentals with six bedrooms or more, and those with multiple units on the same property, will now be subject to a simple zoning permit. That requirement also includes new facilities of five bedrooms or less.
Regulations governing quiet hours on vacation rentals were relaxed to cover a period from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., the same hours contained in the county’s General Plan.
Some audience members pushed for greater leeway on the limit on overnight guests.
The proposed ordinance sets that limit based on an industry-accepted ratio for septic system capacity of two people per bedroom. After the June meeting, county staff recommended boosting that limit by two additional people, allowing a five-bedroom unit, for example, to house 12 guests. Commissioners supported that plan Thursday.
“I think you’re at the right level of occupancy,” said Richard Charter, a Bodega Bay resident who urged the commission to restrain rental property uses out of concern about safety and courtesy to neighbors.
But because children age 3 and up count toward that guest cap, some rental owners and managers said the limit would ward off large family bookings and hurt business.
“That could be a very pressing issue for a lot of us,” said Scott Alexander, an owner of rental properties in the Russian River area.
Others argued that the Russian River area should be exempt from the ordinance like the coast because it too has a large percentage of vacation rentals.
Commissioner Don Bennett put a quick end to that debate.
“If the Russian River property owners want to go to the Coastal Commission and have them deal with you, you’re more than welcome,” he said.
Commissioners agreed to institute a basic septic system check for existing larger rental units and multi-structure units that would be granted the lower level zoning permit under the proposed ordinance.
They also agreed to keep in place a ban on amplified noise from rental properties unless otherwise authorized by a special event or use permit.
“We’ve been asked specifically to maintain that,” said Commissioner Paula Cook.