Vacation is something we all look forward to, rarely get enough of, and when we do have the opportunity to get away from our daily lives it is natural to want to laugh, talk, and simply be with our friends, mates, and family. The goal is to have a great experience with a limited allotment of free time before returning to our normal routine.
But what happens when, in the course of our daily lives, we find our higher density neighborhoods suddenly shifting into recreation zones replete with bachelorette parties, idling tour buses, and laughter long into the night? When your neighbors are disappearing in favor of new people rotating weekly, each seeking to have a wonderful time on a very different schedule than a working person?
To be sure, it is not the “fault” of the vacationer – they just Googled, paid a fee online, and showed up at the house next door expecting a fun vacation in the beautiful Valley of the Moon.
They don’t know that the working person next door is tired of the noise, frustrated by the independent operator, and misses the stability of knowing their neighbors. They are not aware this issue is changing the Valley and causing friction between previously harmonious neighbors.
To be sure, there are responsible vacation rental managers who know the law, who go above and beyond to ensure their rentals are virtually invisible, and who are anxious to embrace changes that will bring more balance into the market.
The issue of vacation rentals has exploded over the past few years. Almost since I began serving the First District, my office has received calls and emails nearly daily. I have spoken with people on all sides of the issue and advocated for change in the Sonoma County Vacation Rental Ordinance. Put simply, we need balance.
On Thursday, September third, the Sonoma County Planning Commission will hear the issue of Vacation Rentals and make recommendations on changes to the current ordinance adopted in 2011. It is highly likely the discussion will continue on September 10 with the final recommendations coming before the Board of Supervisors on October 1.
The Permit and Resource Management Division (PRMD) has spent the past eight months gathering information, engaging the community, and crafting policy options with recommendations for review. The staff report is available online at http://www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/vacrent/. This study was conducted at the behest of the Board of Supervisors and I commend the leadership of PRMD Director Tennis Wick and his staff in creating this report.
The PRMD report cites a July 7, 2015 white paper study commissioned by the Community Development Commission (CDC) as part of their presentation on Housing and Homelessness presented to the Board of Supervisors on August 25. The paper, “The Impact of Vacation Rentals on Affordable and Workforce Housing” proves that vacation rentals are removing increasingly limited housing stock and no area is more affected than the Valley.
From the PMRD report, “The most recent U.S. Census (American Community Survey) figures reveal that over half of the unoccupied units in the County are not available for rent or sale because they are in seasonal use or are used as second homes. […] Continuing this trend would have devastating effects on the ability of the County’s workforce to live within the county.” Further, “This practice is reducing the supply of housing available to the resident workforce, and is driving rental prices upward. The Report recommends strict limits on the use of the existing housing stock for visitor-serving uses.”
Here in the Sonoma Valley, we are feeling the full effect.
Sonoma Valley has the highest number of permitted vacation rentals in the county; we also have the most complaints. At the time of the report (7/16/15), there were 361 approved vacation rentals and since that date, PRMD estimates another 30 have been approved, bringing the total number to approximately 390 permits. This does not account for the many un-permitted vacation rentals that continue to operate, even after being cited and fined. We need better policies and enforcement.
The report proves what my office has been hearing from the community for over two years. Perhaps most disturbing is the removal of work force housing from our already limited stock of long term rentals. No geographical area has been more affected than the Springs area, which has long been a place where people of any income could find a home to raise their families. Today, I am hearing about evictions for conversion to vacation rentals, families leaving the area entirely, and employers who are struggling to retain workers. Look around: there are “Help Wanted” signs everywhere.
Without workforce housing, we will simply not be able to sustain a tourism-based economy that is drawing visitors here. We face the very real possibility of neighborhoods where no one actually resides or invests their talents in the community. We face the loss of socioeconomic diversity and viewpoints; we ensure the fostering of homogeneity.
The thing I appreciate the most about Sonoma Valley is the connective tissue that binds this community together and inspires such strong feelings about the future. Passionate discourse runs through our narrative. Generosity is the rule and expectation, not the exception. The challenge of bringing balance to the vacation rental market is an opportunity to bring this collective passion and generosity to the fore.
It is up to us, not the tourist vacationing next door, to make the needed changes so we can remain a destination, but more importantly, a community. The County needs to do our part and we are working together to meet this imperative. This effort will require all of us, from the neighbor to the investor to the onlooker.
Please watch as the issue unfolds over the next several weeks and contact me if you have any questions, concerns or comments: [email protected].