The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a temporary moratorium on new permits for vacation rental properties to address a backlog of more than 200 applications and develop a comprehensive regulation package for vacation rentals. (Photo courtesy Sonoma Airbnb)

Sonoma County will not approve new vacation rental applications for roughly the next six weeks after the county Board of Supervisors approved a temporary moratorium Tuesday on processing new permits.

The moratorium, going into effect immediately as an urgency ordinance, will last for 45 days and allow county permitting officials to address a backlog of more than 200 applications and develop a comprehensive ordinance regulating vacation rentals, which are reserved via platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo.

A search of all Airbnb listings in Sonoma County yields over a thousand spots, with some towns having so many that the rental juggernaut simply designates them as containing “300 plus” listings, such as Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County is in the process of drafting a comprehensive vacation rental ordinance and hopes to have it completed and ready for the supervisors to consider by Aug. 2. The temporary halt would allow the county — and its laws — to catch up. County officials have held public meetings on potential vacation rental regulations for roughly two years.

Airbnb, Vrbo and other rental sites have drawn concern all over the country from people who fear they are cutting into actual housing rentals, especially affordable housing. Residents who live near the share-economy sites also have had concerns with parking, noise, and irresponsible out-of-towners who come in and leave a big footprint on neighborhoods.

Sonoma County officials cited risks to public safety, health and welfare for residents in its pitch to impose the moratorium.

Yet hosting on the sites has been a godsend for some who rely on the income that a good rental can generate. Some advocates for share-economy rentals want to designate a difference between a private homeowner who wants to rent part of their space and a rental company that snaps up properties to turn them into Airbnbs, running them more like a business than a supplemental income.

“It is not my job, fundamentally, to make sure that people can afford a vacation home in Sonoma County.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins

The moratorium will apply to all property owners who applied for a vacation rental permit after March 17, although those who applied before that date will still have their applications processed.

Applications submitted between March 17 and Tuesday will only be considered for vacation rentals in supervisorial districts 2 and 3, which include the cities of Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park and central Santa Rosa.

Districts 2 and 3 have three and zero applications outstanding, respectively, far fewer than the county’s other three districts, according to county officials.

District 5, which includes all of the county’s coastline and the lower Russian River area, has upwards of 90 of the county’s outstanding applications. The county has approved some 1,900 vacation rental permits in total.

While the board unanimously approved the moratorium, some members of the public commenting at the meeting argued that the pause would make it harder for them to afford a vacation rental property within the county.

“It is not my job, fundamentally, to make sure that people can afford a vacation home in Sonoma County and that they can pay their mortgage with Airbnb revenue,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents District 5.

“I do feel like it’s my job to make sure that streets are paved, that there are kids in schools, that people actually have a shot at living and working in the same community and that we find some way of really balancing economic vitality, of which tourism in west county is absolutely critical, with quality of live and the preservation of our residential neighborhoods,” she said.

The board considered the moratorium after Permit Sonoma, the county’s land use and development permitting agency, reported a spike in applications after the county Planning Commission voted on March 17 to continue its public hearing on vacation rental regulations.

Permit Sonoma staff normally receive and process around 10 vacation rental applications per month, according to the agency’s Deputy Planning Director Scott Orr.

Since March 17, however, that number has jumped to 50 per month. Roughly 120 permit applications have been submitted in total since mid-March, according to Permit Sonoma.

Hopkins noted that the pause on processing applications doesn’t mean those applications will never be processed at all and that it is intended to avoid overcrowding residential areas with vacation rentals.

“It doesn’t mean, to be clear, if you’re in that pipeline that you will never move forward,” she said. “It’s just that we want to make sure that’s consistent with what we’re doing and that we don’t create concentrations that are really problematic for the residential areas.”

County permitting officials plan to bring a set of vacation rental regulations to the board in early August.

Tourism is a huge part of the Sonoma County economy. A 2021 annual tourism report done by the county focused on recovery from hits it took due to COVID-19, but the numbers don’t lie. Direct visitor spending in Sonoma County was $1.1 billion in 2020, and that number was down from pre-pandemic 2019 numbers at $2 billion.