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Petaluma debating new rules for unofficial vacation rentals

Thomas Holsboer of the Netherlands works on programming an iPhone as a guest at the Bowers family's bed-and-breakfast home in Petaluma Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.  (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Thomas Holsboer of the Netherlands works on programming an iPhone as a guest at the Bowers family’s bed-and-breakfast home in Petaluma Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)


As a city working to capitalize on its tourism charms, Petaluma doesn’t want to snub potential overnight guests. But it does want its short-term lodging businesses to be legal and pay the taxes required of other accommodations.

The city passed code amendments last year that allow traditional bed-and-breakfasts to operate in residential districts, but only after approval of a use permit and other requirements to help them integrate into their neighborhoods.

Since then, only one B&B owner has applied for permission, Planning Manager Heather Hines said.

Meanwhile, there are at least 16 private, short-term vacation rentals listed on websites that cater to travelers looking for a homey getaway in the land of Butter and Eggs.

The short-term rentals, often a room or two or sometimes an entire house, don’t fit into the city’s current rules that regulate traditional B&Bs, hotels and boarding houses.

“It’s difficult to classify these uses under the existing zoning code,” Hines said.

Owners offer a service for a fee, but don’t have business licenses. They don’t collect the city’s 10 percent transient-occupancy tax charged on nightly stays at the city’s hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds.

The city collects almost $2 million a year from its official lodging operators.

Petaluma is just the latest town in Sonoma County to grapple with the thorny issue of short-term vacation rentals.

Over the past three years, the county, Healdsburg and Sonoma have fielded complaints — and sometimes police calls — of guests damaging property, hosting large events or causing noisy havoc in previously quiet environs.

In early 2010, a teenage girl was seriously injured when a deck built without proper permits collapsed under a huge crowd of young people partying at a Guerneville-area vacation rental. At the time, the county had no rules governing such short-term rentals.

The Board of Supervisors subsequently established rules, including a permit process and caps on the number of rooms, guests, noise and other activity, for rentals outside the coastal zone. Permits range from $150 to $3,800, depending on the number of guest rooms and structures.

More recently, Healdsburg city leaders have been asked to regulate the rentals after complaints about big parties, limos and loud bands at unpermitted rentals in the town’s upscale homes.

This week in Petaluma, a community meeting drew nearly 20 people who spoke to the City Council about their experiences as operators of the under-the-radar rentals, guests or residents who live near them.

Several operators, or “hosts,” as they call themselves, said they’d be happy to pay the city lodging tax, although they don’t handle payments; the web booking site they use does.

A common Internet booking site, Airbnb.com, says hosts are responsible for collecting local taxes. Other under-the-radar rentals are advertised on Flipkey, Homeaway, VRBO and other sites.

Maurice and Sheri Bowers have operated a short-term vacation rental on Laurel Street northwest of downtown Petaluma since March.

They said they talked with their neighbors before offering their extra bedroom, for which they charge $90 a night. They also provide off-street parking for as many as six cars.

“We wanted to make sure our neighbors were comfortable with it,” Sheri Bowers said. “We try to make it a non-issue.”

A few others in town have generated complaints from neighbors unhappy with strangers coming and going, noises from vacationers and the unregulated commercial use in a residential area, Hines said.

Moreover, she said: “The city is not benefiting from the transient occupancy tax, because that’s triggered through issuance of a business license.”

Several rental operators said they don’t consider what they do to be a business.

“It’s a room in somebody’s home, it’s not a separate unit,” said Deborah Garber, who rents space in her McNear Park-area home for $95 a night or $600 a week. “The argument could be made that that’s similar to having a roommate. Does that connote a business?”

Naomi Richmond, operator of the Secret Garden north of downtown, rents two rooms for $85 a night or $560 a week. Some of her neighbors have complained about parking, noise and the commercial aspects of her operation on their street.

“How do we deal with changing times? One person said he wanted (the town) like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ but it’s too late,” she said. “There is a fantasy that we can turn back the clock to that time.”

The Bowers and others say they have made lasting friendships with guests, adding that many travelers prefer a more personal touch than a hotel.

City Council members asked city planners to gather more public input and return with ideas on how to regulate short-term rentals and collect lodging taxes, while assuring the businesses aren’t a nuisance to the surrounding residents. No meeting dates have been set.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

8 Responses to “Petaluma debating new rules for unofficial vacation rentals”

  1. @earthslaves says:

    Love it when someone starts their post with, “I moved here…” Then complains about change and anti-growth, etc.

    Did you ever stop to think that you are part of the problem.

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  2. James Bennett says:

    Eartsleaves; when you moved here Petaluma probably wasn’t in the grips of ICLEI.
    This UN sponsored NGO dictates EVERYTHING to your ‘public servants’.

    Civally engineering the sabotage of organic free market small business through inconvenient access and parking.
    Bottle necking down towns (see the pattern?), parking shenanigans.

    Yet the nation chain Public Private Partners at the mall get lots ‘o parking. You drive semis and access that parking, and we will often even subsidize it.

    I believe that the longer you hand around in business, you should build a kind of equity in the community. They’ve been through thick and thin, paid taxes, paid ‘dues’. They have been loyal to the town and deserve some loyalty in return.

    However that’s not who their officials are loyal to.

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  3. earthsleaves says:

    I moved to this town because it was charmiing and appeared to value its history.

    Ten years later all I see is constant gridlock on D Street, Washington, and the historic downtown since in their infinite wisdom this city council decided to narrow the street; and

    The beauty of the landscape, including the beautiful trees, that welcomed a visitor to Petaluma destroyed to make way for more big box shopping centers with empty store fronts and more to come.

    Do you really think that complaining about people renting out their space to make a little extra money is Petaluma’s biggest problem?

    Stupid is as stupid does.

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  4. dbaker says:

    “The extent to which you folks will go to trash any law, or any source of revenue, amazes me. Who are the freeloaders?”

    So what’s your deal bear, you a meter maid or something? Just because you personally gain from a wrong doesn’t make it right. You got a lot of nerve referring to the productive class as freeloaders. What do you do for me that I should grant you control over my property and pay a tribute for the privilege of using what is mine? Please tell me how crazy I am and shock me with the blunt reality of my utter dependence upon your public services.

    Is there any limit to your claimed authority over others? When I go to work how long should I be working for you before I’m allowed to punch in for myself? 3, 4 hours, what? For what?

    By the way the state constitution isn’t just some law and these corporate board members don’t pass laws. I’m for the Common Law which has jurisdiction over any color of law corporate policies set by chartered corporate persons. I’m a man, not an employee, and definitely not your property. God-Man-State-Corporation. You should know your place.

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  5. bear says:

    Second dwelling units are allowed in most places, with proper permits, and by definition are intended to be rented.

    “Guest houses” with bootlegged kitchens should be 2nd units, unless the property’s zoning or septic system doesn’t allow second units.

    The whole point of permits is to make sure that utilities, construction, etc. are SAFE for residents and visitors.

    The extent to which you folks will go to trash any law, or any source of revenue, amazes me. Who are the freeloaders?

    If you don’t like public safety regs or permits, then I suggest you vote for people who agree with you. The results in terms of property values and insurance rates will not be pleasant.

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  6. dbaker says:

    “Moreover, she said: “The city is not benefiting from the transient occupancy tax, because that’s triggered through issuance of a business license.”

    You mean to tell me that these folks have the audacity to utilize their surplus of bedrooms to meet the demands of travelers willing to pay, without first getting permission and paying thousands of dollars to strangers who will provide nothing in return? Conducting business without a business license is…

    I am blown away at just how little regard the busy bodies have for the rights of the people. If there is a neighbor who is so put out let them deal with it. They have access to the courts and if their rights are being violated let a jury decide. That’s how grown ups approach disagreements with one another. Telling the teacher is what children do.

    SECTION 1. All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and
    liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

    SEC. 9. A bill of attainder, ex post facto law,or law impairing the obligation of contracts maynot be passed.

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  7. Steveguy says:

    This is just the beginning. They will want to “permit” you to do anything with your private property. Then they will force things like ADA compliance therefore shutting down any individuals attempt to make some extra money.

    With permit fees, costs to comply, paperwork, and bed tax they want to snuff out any private dealings.

    Sometimes Granny needs to rent out the Granny Unit in order to make ends meet. There are many reasons to rent out space to people.

    Like James said, of course a full blown B and B should get a use permit and perhaps get turned down. Throwing a regulatory blanket over more casual property owners is onerous indeed.

    Baaaaaaa to the masters. They want all of our wool.

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  8. James Bennett says:

    A soft pedal segway into keeping guest cottages in their reglatory loop.

    They will be under assault like all facets of rural life.

    These guest cottages (excluding full blown B&B business’) are important to many country property owners as a way to make ends meet; and they know it.

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