7/20/21 VR Workshop AdHoc Report

Permit Sonoma Land use and Zoning Map: https://sonomacounty.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=06ac7fe1b8554171b4682dc141293962

Prepared for Short-Term Vacation Rental Ordinance Update Workshop – July 20, 2021 – Suggested Revisions 

SUBMITTED BY: Lower Russian River MAC Vacation Rental AdHoc Committee

We are mid-way through our second year as a committee but have not completed our work yet. What follows are suggestions to changes we would like to see in the ordinance based on what we have learned so far.

This workshop is being scheduled mid-tourism season so leaves out professionals in this field who need to provide input that pertains to their business. Please consider extending the research/input time-period to later this fall/winter when tourism drops off so that these businesses can provide their input when they have time. THANK YOU.



The Lower Russian River communities are especially impacted by the vacation rental business. Our area was established for recreation many decades ago and became populated with second homes, hotels, and vacation cabins. That set a precedent that cannot be ignored – BUT – our area has also evolved into the majority of existing homes being year-round homes for families.

Russian River communities are also a challenge for development. Limited roads on steep hills that lack infrastructure in a high fire and flood-risk area limit the number of new homes that can be built here. The current inventory of existing structures is mostly what we have to work with, so finding a balance between residences and commercial short-term rentals is essential for maintaining both neighborhoods for year-round renters and homeowners, as well as for our economy which depends heavily upon visitors.

Local school enrollment is also heavily impacted by losing year-round homes to commercial businesses. Right now we are fighting to keep our high school that serves a very large area reaching as far north as the border to Mendocino County. Maintaining a healthy inventory of homes for families is essential to keeping our communities vital and our schools funded.

VR AdHoc Committee Findings & Reports

Please visit russianrivermac.org for our reports, survey results, and information we have gathered so far to use as part of your decision-making process.

Vacation Rental-to-Resident Ratio

During the first year of our committee, we learned how other vacation and tourist-dependent communities establish limits and regulations to maintain the integrity of their hometowns. We also surveyed locals to learn how both residents and vacation-rental businesses and support services view living with this industry. 

This year our committee is gathering data that identifies short-term vacation rental locations so we can determine what is a good resident-to-business ratio that supports the industry but not at a cost to neighborhood function, integrity, and safety. This information will also help us learn what is the maximum percentage of resident housing we can afford to lose before our schools and other small businesses suffer.

Our VR mapping tool, which Permit Sonoma can do as well, helps define the boundaries of a “neighborhood” which we have defined as the area most impacted by the vacation rental in terms of parking/sound/lights. The mapping we are doing demonstrates that some neighborhoods have a high vacation rental-to-resident ratio which degrades neighborhoods into commercial districts. As our mapping work continues, we hope to demonstrate this in detail.   

We SUPPORT the CAP on the number of Short-term Vacation Rentals in the Lower Russian River communities. We recommend that the Cap become permanent and that it pertains to not just our communities as a whole, but also to neighborhoods identified by proximity to the vacation rental. We also suggest that there be a CAP on how many VRs any one entity can own.

24/7 VR Contact Info for Neighbors 

One of the most prevalent comments we hear from residents is how to find who to call when there is a problem with a vacation rental. The current ordinance and website/voicemail asks people to look up the property on Permit Sonoma’s website. IF it is listed and can be found, that is the ONLY way to find a 24/7 phone number to call the owner/operator directly. This is a difficult and frustrating process for a neighbor when lights are left on late, dogs are barking, parking spaces are taken, and/or noise levels negatively impact neighbors, etc. IF they call the owner/manager they may only get a voicemail. 

People tend to call the Sheriff instead. These issues are usually not criminal in nature so the Sheriff is not going to provide a solution. Permit Sonoma is not available evenings and weekends so there is no immediate solution offered from P.S..  

If Permit Sonoma funds an enforcement division that is on call 24/7, residents know they have someone to call for help when reaching the owner/operator is not possible.

If there is an easily found 24/7 VR contact for neighbors, etc. they are more likely to call that person and resolutions can be accomplished immediately. This keeps both Permit Sonoma and the Sheriff out of the problem.  BUT, even if complaints are solved at the property manager level, there still needs to be a system that allows neighbors to file information on the complaint and resolution with Permit Sonoma so that there is a compilation of incidents in the record of a property so it can be reviewed at the time of permit renewal.

We suggest that VRs mail 24/7 contact information and Permit Sonoma complaint policies to neighbors within visual and auditory proximity of the VR at least once a year. 

We also suggest that priority is placed on locally-owned property managers so that there is someone who can respond to solve the problems immediately. (see 8. Certified 24-hour Property Manager under (f) Performance Standards.) This would also help the VR avoid accumulating strikes which could put them out of business.

Existing Ordinance with Suggested Changes:


Sec. 26-88-120. – Vacation Rentals. 

(d) Term of Permit. Zoning permits shall run with the landowner and shall automatically expire upon sale or transfer of the property. Use permits shall run with the land but may be issued for limited term, as specified by the decision-maker. Both types of permits may be revoked for failure to comply with adopted standards, subject to the administrative and revocation procedures of Article 92 unless otherwise specified by this section. 

“LIMITED TERM as specified by the decision-maker” is too vague. Please specify a renewal date (every 3 years?) that coincides with a review of how a property owner is complying with the ordinance. If there are no formal complaints that have not been resolved it can be a simple roll-over of the permit. But if there have been at least two unresolved complaints, the permit is then reviewed before renewal. Each complaint is reviewed for the type of complaint, and for how well the owner resolved the complaint. 

“Both types of permits may be revoked for failure to comply with adopted standards” This becomes an important part of the review process and depends upon improved Code Enforcement at Permit Sonoma. In our research we found properties that do not comply with current standards yet these properties have permits. 

EXAMPLE: parking spaces are required in the current ordinance ((e) Permit Requirements. 5. Parking.) yet we found properties that advertised that they do NOT have parking, and yet they have a permit. If there are exceptions to this and other rules then those exceptions must be identified in the ordinance.

(e) Permit Requirements. 

  • Can there be a limit on the number of vacation rentals that can be owned by any one person/company/entity?
  • Can there be a limit on the ratio of VRs to residences in neighborhoods that are identified by proximity, sphere of visual and auditory impact (such as hillsides facing a canyon, homes at the top of hills where noise travels down into the lowlands, etc.)?
Wastewater concerns:
  1. Maximum Number of Guestrooms. Vacation rentals may have a maximum of five (5) guestrooms or sleeping rooms. Vacation rentals with more than five (5) guestrooms or sleeping rooms may only be allowed if adequate sewage disposal capacity exists and neighborhood compatibility can be demonstrated, subject to the granting of a use permit. For purposes of determining the appropriate level of permit required, the actual number of bedrooms in the structure plus any additional rooms intended or used for sleeping shall be used. 
  2. Maximum Overnight Occupancy. Maximum overnight occupancy for vacation rentals shall be up to a maximum of two (2) persons per sleeping room or guestroom, plus two (2) additional persons per property, up to a maximum of twelve (12) persons, excluding children under three (3) years of age. Vacation rentals with larger overnight occupancies may only be allowed subject to the granting of a use permit. For homes on a conditional or non-standard septic system, or those with capacity limited by a voluntary repair, the maximum  overnight occupancy for vacation rentals shall be equal to the design load of the septic system. The property owner shall ensure that all contracts and online listings and advertisements clearly set forth the maximum number of overnight guests permitted at the property. 

Current state regulations demand upgrades on septic systems to meet water quality standards that have been established in recent years (https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/northcoast/water_issues/programs/tmdls/russian_river/) . If these homes are not on local sewer systems, the waste system would be an important part of inspections during permit renewal. This is especially true for properties that are within 600 feet of tributaries and the Russian River. The chance for malfunctioning septics is very high during tourist season so frequent inspections of these systems would ensure water quality and safety for all river users and neighbors in the water-sensitive areas. Inspections at permit renewal time would be essential. 

The following (under (f) Performance Standards) also addresses wastewater systems so this item can be upgraded to include periodic inspections to meet our new state-imposed standards.

  1. Septic Systems and Sewer Connections. The owner shall maintain a properly functioning septic system or sewer connection. In some cases, a per-room sewer fee may be applied. 
Limited Neighborhood Parking Space concerns:
  1. Parking. Parking shall be provided as follows: a minimum of one (1) on-site parking space for a vacation rental with up to two (2) guestrooms or sleeping rooms; two (2) on-site parking spaces for a three (3) or four (4) guestroom vacation rental. Larger vacation rentals must demonstrate adequate parking with a minimum of three (3) spaces. On-street parking may be considered for up to one (1) of the required parking spaces; otherwise, the number of vehicles allowed for overnight guests shall be limited to the off-street parking available, as demonstrated by the application materials and the property checklist, but shall not exceed one vehicle per bedroom. This maximum number of vehicles permitted for guests shall be clearly set forth in all rental agreements and in all online advertisements and listings. 

Our Russian River neighborhoods, especially in close proximity to the river that are most popular with vacationers, have serious parking limitations. As stated above, we found some VRs on Permit Sonoma’s TVR licensed properties list with NO PARKING AVAILABLE mentioned on their website. How can they obtain a license if they can not guarantee they can offer parking spaces that do not impact nearby residents? Every time a VR is up for license renewal it would help if they can be inspected to see if they still offer adequate parking.

(f) Performance Standards

NOISE concerns:
  1. Noise Limits. All activities associated with the vacation rental shall meet the general plan noise standards contained below. Quiet hours shall be from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. The property owner shall ensure that the quiet hours and limits on outdoor activities are included in rental agreements and in all online advertisements and listings.
  2. Amplified Sound. Outdoor amplified sound shall not be allowed at any time associated with a vacation rental. 
  3. Pets. Pets, if allowed by owner, shall be secured on the property 

Noise comes up a lot when people complain about VRs in their neighborhoods. The Sheriff states that there is no noise ordinance in unincorporated Sonoma County. Yet the VR ordinance clearly defines times when noise is not allowed. It also defines amplified sound and pet noise, yet people leave their dogs to go to the beach and meals, and dogs bark incessantly in strange homes without their families. Again, if a local property manager can be called instead of the Sheriff, a solution to these problems might be easily found.

TOT TAX concerns:
  1. Transient Occupancy Tax. The vacation rental owner or authorized agent shall maintain a transient occupancy tax certificate and remain current on all required reports and payments. Owner or authorized agent shall include the certificate number on all contracts or rental agreements, and in any advertising or websites. 

We have learned that there is not a consistent system for charging all VRs equally. Property management companies pay a higher fee and booking agents like Air BnB, VRBO, etc. pay a lower fee than simple property owners. 

We would like to see all properties charge TOT based on rooms and occupancy so that the tax is on the same structure regardless of who owns and/or manages the property. Our hope is that a level playing field will discourage VR owners from finding work-arounds to paying TOT taxes for what they consider an unfair tax structure.

24/7 Availability of Property Manager concerns:
  1. Certified 24-hour Property Manager. All vacation rentals operating within unincorporated Sonoma County must have a certified property manager who is available 24 hours per days, 7 days per week during all times that the property is rented or used on a transient basis. Certified property managers may be professional property managers, realtors, property owners, or other designated person provided that the individual has successfully completed a training course and achieved a qualifying score on a county-administered certification test. Certification shall be granted by the County and may be revoked by the County. Once certified, a property manager must continue to comply with all provisions set forth in this Section, including timely reporting of all complaints and their resolutions, in order to remain certified. Certified property managers must be located within a 30-mile radius of the vacation rental and must be available to respond to complaints at all times during the rental period. Any requested change to the certified property manager for a vacation rental property shall be made through submittal of a new Vacation Supplemental Application or similar form provided by the Department, and shall include the signature of the certified property manager and the desired effective date of the change. In no case may a vacation rental operate without a current certified property manager. Operation of a vacation rental without a valid certified property manager shall be considered a violation of this Section. The name and 24 hour contact information of the certified property manager shall be provided to any interested party upon request. 

Although this is in the current ordinance, it does not appear to be enforced. Aagin, we suggest that 24/7 contact information be handed out/mailed to all residents within impact range of the VR at least once a year

PERMIT concerns:
  1. Posting and Neighbor Notification of Permit and Standards. Once a vacation rental permit has been approved, a copy of the permit listing all applicable standards and limits shall be posted within the vacation rental property. The owner shall post these standards in a prominent place within 6 feet of the front door of the vacation rental, and include them as part of all rental agreements. At the permit holder’s expense, the County shall provide mailed notice of permit issuance to property owners and immediate neighbors of the vacation rental unit using the standard 300’ property owner mailing list. All advertising handouts, flyers, internet listings, or any other information provided for vacation rentals shall conform to the approved occupancy limits and standards as stated on the vacation rental permit. Advertising may only be conducted for properties operating under a valid permit. Advertising for a particular property inconsistent with the approvals for that property shall be considered a violation of these performance standards. 

#10 ignores that properties are advertised that do not have permits. Your own web scrubbing program is designed to find these and bring them into compliance. “Host Compliance” also offers that service. We have looked up permitted VRs on the Permit Sonoma website but also online during a general Russian River Vacation Rental web search. Some of those advertised properties are not listed as permitted properties (one permit designation could aid in this process instead of several codes for permits)  on Permit Sonoma’s website. Some have expired permits. The work of finding these is too much for our tiny committee. We recommend that P.S. budget finding unlicensed VRs in order to both bring them into compliance as well as raise TOT taxes to finance a 24/7 Enforcement Division.

  1. Requirements for All Internet Advertisements and Listings. All online advertisements and/or listings for the vacation rental property shall include the following: 
  2. Maximum occupancy, not including children under 3; 
  3. Maximum number of vehicles; 
  4. Notification that quiet hours must be observed between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.; 
  5. Notification that no outdoor amplified sound is allowed; and,
  6. The Transient Occupancy Tax Certificate number for that particular property. 

#11 looks like a challenge to enforce. SOME advertised listings have this info but from what we found, it’s the minority. Most did not have the TOT #. We had to find that on Permit Sonoma’s site. In two cases they not only don;t have off-street parking – they have on their website NO PARKING AVAILABLE. Doesn’t this violate the permit?


(g) Enforcement Process.

  1. Initial complaints on vacation rentals shall be directed to the certified property manager identified in the zoning permit or use permit, as applicable. The certified property manager shall be available 24 hours during all times when the property is rented, and shall be available by phone during these hours. Should a problem or arise and be reported to the certified property manager, the certified property manager shall be responsible for contacting the tenant to correct the problem within 60 minutes, or within 30 minutes if during quiet hours, including visiting the site if necessary to ensure that the issue has been corrected. 

Because FINDING a property manager with contact information easily located is so difficult, people call the Sheriff instead. The current system of asking people to look up the 24/7 number on the P.S. website just doesn’t work, which is why people call the Sheriff. That 24/7 contact info needs to be EASILY found. The best solution we came up with is the once-a-year postcard to neighbors since P.S. regulations have required people to post it at the VR, but no one is going to trespass on the property to find it. 

• Can the 24/7 contact number be added to 11. Requirements for All Internet Advertisements and Listings in addition to an annual neighborhood postcard?

The certified property manager shall complete the online reporting form to report any such complaints, and their resolution or attempted resolution(s), to PRMD within 24 hours of the occurrence. Failure to respond to complaints or report them to PRMD shall be considered a violation of this section, and shall be cause for revocation of certification status. 

When people call the Sheriff instead of the property manager, this aspect of enforcement never comes into play.

  1. Three Strikes Penalty. Upon receipt of any combination of three administrative citations, verified violations, or hearing officer determinations of violation of any of the permit requirements or performance standards issued to the owner or occupants at the property within a two year period, the vacation rental zoning permit is summarily revoked, subject to prior notice and to appeal, if requested within 10 days. Should such a revocation occur, an application to reestablish a vacation rental at the subject property shall not be accepted for a minimum period of two years. 

When people call the Sheriff instead of the property manager, it appears that violations never get on their record.

This all comes back to having that 24/7 number EASY to find – AND – goes back to the reality that national/International booking companies CANNOT be responsive to complaints. A LOCAL property manager needs to be a REQUIREMENT for owning a VR. There is no other way to accomplish the 30 or 60 minute response time for solving a neighbor’s problem with guests in a VR.

4. Violation of Performance Standards –Administrative Citations.
In addition to all other legal remedies, criminal or civil, which may be pursued by the County to address any violation of the County Code, this subsection provides for Administrative Citations. 

The LIST that follows this opening paragraph needs to INCLUDE: 
  • required parking spaces since parking on the street in our tight neighborhoods only takes parking spaces away from people who live there.  
  • 24/7 property manager contact info shared with neighbors.

(h) Monitoring and Enforcement Fee

  1. An annual fee may be adopted by the board of supervisors and collected by PRMD or the county tax collector to pay for monitoring and enforcement of vacation rentals. 

(h) states that a fee MAY be adopted. If this fee can pay for 24/7 enforcement – then please make it happen.


The above covers the existing ordinance and our current suggestions. As we learn more we may make additional suggestions to help our communities thrive while being a commercial destination for tourists.

THANK YOU for considering our input,

Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council
Vacation Rental AdHoc Committee

Vesta Copestakes
Nic Pereira
Lucy Hardcastle

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