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