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Crowded parties at Sonoma County vacation homes spark debate


An upscale neighborhood in Healdsburg is the latest flashpoint for a controversy over vacation rentals that flares periodically in Wine Country.

Residents complain the weekend rental of a nearby house for parties and special events brings traffic and noisy revelers to their neighborhood.

There even was a wedding held at the Sunset Drive house on Fitch Mountain, complete with a band and limos clogging the cul-de-sac, according to retired businessman Richard Burke, who lives on the street.

“It was a very aggravating situation,” he said, adding that he and his neighbors have had to put up with the intrusions for close to two years.

The home at 1050 Sunset Drive in Healdsburg, Friday July 5, 2013. (Kent Porter / PD)

The home at 1050 Sunset Drive in Healdsburg, Friday July 5, 2013. (Kent Porter / PD)

“There are pool parties mid-afternoon with 10 cars in front of the house and the noise level is unbelievable,” he said of the custom home. It boasts spectacular views, an in-ground saltwater pool, a spa and gourmet indoor and outdoor kitchens. It rents for up to $4,500 a weekend.

“We said, ‘This is not what the neighborhood is all about.’ There are some expensive, high-end homes and it’s a wonderful place to live,” he said of the harm done by constant parties and influx of strangers.

The debate over vacation rentals pits property owners who can get extra income for showcase and secondary homes — even a primary residence — against those longing for tranquility and wanting to protect the character of their neighborhoods.

Cities and counties have responded differently.

Sonoma County allows vacation rentals in the unincorporated areas. By some estimates, there are 1,000 or more such rentals from The Sea Ranch to the Russian River area to the Valley of the Moon.

After a deck built without proper permits collapsed under a crowd of young people partying at a Guerneville-area vacation rental in 2010, seriously injuring a teen girl, the county arrived at a set of rules governing them.

They include limits on daytime and overnight occupancy and restrictions on noise and amplified sound.

Santa Rosa does not allow vacation rentals, but the city of Sonoma does in some neighborhoods.

They are prohibited in the unincorporated area of Napa County and in Calistoga, but permitted in the city of Napa and St. Helena.

A professionally managed property can be an asset to the community, benefit the tourism industry and draw “good people who come and spend thousands of dollars a day,” said Thera Buttaro, spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Vacation Rental Managers Association.

She noted that in the unincorporated areas of Sonona County, vacation rentals must be registered and pay bed taxes.

Burke and some of his neighbors went to the Healdsburg City Council this week to air their concerns and ask for a crackdown on vacation rentals, which are prohibited in Healdsburg.

But others argued in favor of allowing them and said the city can collect revenue by imposing bed taxes on vacation rentals.

A majority of council members said they are not interested in legalizing them. In fact, they decided to step up enforcement to put a stop to vacation rentals, especially those that generate complaints.

“I can imagine sitting around at night listening to people splashing around in the hot tub and wanting to pull my hair out,” Councilman Shaun McCaffery said.

The council consensus to pursue shutting down the ultra-short-term rentals came after hearing from speakers on both sides of the issue.

Former Healdsburg Mayor Kent Mitchell, a real estate agent who has owned and managed vacation rentals outside Sonoma County, said it’s readily apparent numerous vacation rentals are operating within the city illegally and “under the radar.”

Based on listings on websites such as Vacation Rental By Owner, he said there were 166 recently in the Healdsburg area, but many of those were outside city limits. There is no doubt that “dozens and dozens are operating within city limits, not paying fees, or licensed,” he said.

He argued in favor of legitimizing them, saying they could pay a 14 percent bed tax, just like hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, that would generate “tens of thousands of dollars” for the city.

“I would love to rent my home to take in more income,” Kathleen Beiser told the City Council.

“It is the year 2013. People are doing this all over the world,” she said, adding that there should be “strict parameters,” so the fabric of the community won’t be eroded by vacation rentals, as some fear.

But Bruce Abramson, a real estate broker and former parks and recreation commissioner, said people do not want to live next to a vacation rental.

They not only erode property values, he said, but detract from “a nice small town with families.”

Landlords will get rid of renters who make noise, he said, but with a vacation rental, the short-term occupants can’t be constrained as easily.

“This is kind of really insidious,” he said of the incursion of vacation rentals into neighborhoods.

Council members tended to agree. “I worry about what happens to some of our old, old neighborhoods if every home is a vacation rental,” Councilman Gary Plass said.

After agreeing that city staff should pursue ways to rein in the vacation rentals, City Council members said they will take another look at the issue in about two more months.

In the meantime, the house on Sunset Avenue that has drawn the ire of neighbors is for sale, for $2.3 million.

Neighbors are hoping that could end its status as a vacation rental, since it not being marketed as one.

According to county property records, the property is owned by Terry Smith Gross and the Gross Family Trust.

Dianne Delfino, the real estate agent for the property, said her clients are “very private people.”

They did not respond to a request for comment.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

10 Responses to “Crowded parties at Sonoma County vacation homes spark debate”

  1. O. Chip Jones says:

    If a home is in a neighborhood that prohibits this through CC&R’s recorded with the deed. It should not be allowed. Period. All neighbors agreed to this when they purchased their home and signed the agreement.

    When owners convert their home into a VRBO in a neighborhood that does not allow this activity it should be a crime. Criminals don’t report where they vacation, renters who can’t afford a hotel, partying, etc. Humans treat these homes like they treat rental cars and have no skin in the game in the neighborhood.

    If there are no rules against it, neighbors can still take action but it’s an uphill expensive battle.

    What happened to being a good neighbor? Why is this happening? For money? Money has energy and it’s negative energy when it’s at the expense of another’s peace in their own home.

    Homeaway/FlipKey/Air BNB/etc. all have a lot of money to fight this and they could care less what this does to a neighborhood. They only care about the money they make. Period. Fight it when you can and good luck.

  2. Grapevines says:

    There are already laws on the books to deal with this. Lets not encourage the march to “Nanny-State” any worse than it already is.

    Seems like every two-bit legislature isn’t satisfied till they tell us all how to live and spend our lives doing what they think we should be doing.

    Should call this “Bloomburgitis.”

  3. bear says:

    You folks make me laugh.

    Apparently what you want is civilized neighbors who voluntarily comply with existing rules and common decency.

    At the same time you want unregulated capitalism, with property rights solely in the control of property owners?

    And the way to get this is to cut budgets for enforcement and bash public employees for doing what they can to maintain neighborhood peace?

  4. oc says:

    Sorry folks, its private property and its not yours. You have no say in what happens.

    If you want rules live somewhere where there’s a homeowners society. Of course, the hefty dues you’ll pay every month is much more worth it then a handful of parties a couple months out of the year isn’t it? Either way, you’re going to pay.

    This is America and what people do with their land is their business. Buy some earplugs.

  5. nightmare says:

    I have lived next to one of these. I was a nightmare. I complained to property management and they did nothing.(some company in Healdsburg)
    Screaming , music ,drinking until 2 AM.
    Then the stress of not knowing what kind of renter would be coming this weekend.? Nice quiet family or a drunken revelry.
    After some research I was able to obtain the owners phone number….so when I was unable to sleep at 2-3 in the morning I would call her in her warm soft bed in San francisco …..
    YES IT IS A Nightmare

  6. R.B. Fish says:

    This is only the beginning of the problem useless practical and considerate rules are set in place. Have fun, enjoy Healdsburg and wine country but this is a neighborhood. No music or loud noise after 10 PM, no loud vehicles or excessive amount of vehicles including bicycles, identification in the hood that’s its a rental that should pay extra fees with an established account for repairing roads, etc. not for police pension funds or special intrest projects or down town projects. Limit the days per year it can rent, so many rental in one area, and so on.

  7. Larry Watkins says:

    Are the trailer parks full? Are the hotels empty? Are the state parks too crowded? No, these young people have lots of places to go and things to do.

    What about summer jobs to help pay for that college tuition?

  8. bear says:

    Unregulated capitalism and greed.

    Where is YOUR house?

    Hey, cut budgets so you can cut back on enforcement?

  9. Lee says:

    The city of Healdsburg itself is to blame, so much bureaucracy preventing new homes, apartments and hotels from being built to fill the demand.
    Some call it planning, I call it economic discrimination, either way there are no houses for sale or rent, nor are there reasonable hotel rooms available.
    But I guess the well heeled locals love it, as it props up the value of their already built places.

  10. GAJ says:

    Rich people problems.