By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)