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News: 02/01/2019

Supervisors OK hosted rentals, farmstays on more ag lands

In an attempt by county staff to help owners of ag land get creative with additional income sources, while ensuring ag lands don’t get converted over to full-house vacation rentals – thereby impacting housing stock – the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 8 approved amendments to allow hosted rentals, agricultural farmstays, and marketing accommodations on parcels zoned Land Intensive Agriculture (LIA), Land Extensive Agriculture (LEA), and Diverse Agriculture (DA) zoning. The board also agreed to continue to prohibit new vacation rentals in LIA zoning.

The vote was 3-0. Supervisors Gorin, Hopkins and Rabbitt constituted a quorum, with Supervisors Zane and Gore absent.

The existing 62 currently permitted vacation rentals on LIA parcels will be allowed to continue to operate until those permits expire or upon transfer of ownership. Allowing the vacation rental permits to “run with the land” would require a General Plan amendment, so staff will revisit this idea when the General Plan 2020 update gets underway later this year.

The issue of “transient rentals” on LIA land – related to the bigger vacation rental debate – has been watched closely by those in the agricultural community over the past year. This ordinance went before the county planning commission twice last year before going to the Board of Supervisors earlier last month. One of the most deeply discussed points has been the requirement that the primary source of income for a farmstay property come from the agricultural operations on that property.

Farmstays are like hosted rentals – short-term rentals where the owner or tenant farmer remains in the residence or on site – but, unlike hosted rentals, farmstay activities must directly relate to the agricultural operations and promote the agricultural products produced. Through a split vote in September, the planning commission recommended keeping the income requirement as a way to ensure ag operations on a property continue and don’t give way to something else, but some supervisors felt the requirement was a barrier to those who had small farms, those who farmed less lucrative crops – like food over grapes – and would also require the county to come up with a way of monitoring farmstay incomes. Although it voted in favor of dropping the income requirement, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to require owners and farmers to submit a “robust” Agricultural Promotion Plan – i.e. activities that will promote the ag operation or products – as part of the farmstay zoning application.

“I don’t want this to be just leave a bottle of Sonoma County wine out on the bed,” said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. She explained that it’s really about doing something active and participatory – taking a tour, helping with harvest, much in the vein of the agro-tourismo model in Italy.

Hopkins asked staff to work with the various vocal stakeholders – like the Alexander Valley Association, Sonoma County Farm Trails, the Community Alliance for Family Farmers/Farmers Guild, and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau – to develop comprehensive parameters for the zoning application. “I don’t want this to become a perversion of a way to get vacation rentals on LIA properties. I want the agriculture to be part of this,” she stressed.

The board also approved adding additional flexibility to the ordinance by allowing the farmstay to be in a dwelling other than the main home, as was restricted before. Farmstays cannot utilize an Accessory Dwelling Unit, but can be in an onsite guest house (a unit without a kitchen), and are limited to one farmstay per agriculture operation on a property. Farmstay accommodations must have five or fewer bedrooms and special events are limited to only registered guests within that farmstay.

In regard to hosted rentals, a type of short-term rental where the owner must be on site, First District Supervisor Gorin had pointed questions about how the good intentions of the ordinance – to add “economic flexibility” in LIA zones – would look in practice. “How are we going to actually monitor hosted rentals?” Gorin asked staff. Anecdotally, she said, she knows of a few people in the community who say they are doing hosted rentals on their property, but instead are renting out the whole house.

“We have a pretty aggressive enforcement program for vacation rentals,” said Deputy Director Jennifer Barrett in response. “That includes a web scrape we do periodically, which we’ve done twice in the last four years.” Barrett said that web scrape picks up vacation rental listings and flags violations, like those operating without a permit or those exceeding the number of people per bedroom. It would be likely to pick up a listing if it was a hosted rental permit, but being advertised as a whole-house vacation rental. Those that are flagged are followed up by code enforcement. Since September 2018, notices of violations have been sent out to 82 properties, with another 250 properties expected to receive notices of violations in the near future.

There are currently 1,536 permitted vacation rentals in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County.

Hosted rentals are already allowed in DA and LEA zones. Within the Kenwood Fire Protection District boundaries there are 274 DA-zoned parcels, and 111 within the Glen Ellen Fire Department boundaries. There are no LEA-zoned parcels in those areas. With approval of this ordinance, hosted rentals will now be allowed on LIA-zoned parcels, of which Kenwood has 61 and Glen Ellen has 200. However, the county considers factors such as housing size/land ratio, intensity of use, and traffic when approving applications.

Both farmstays and hosted rentals, which are rented commercially, pay a transient occupancy tax to the county and so are monitored within that program.

Marketing accommodations, the third type of short-term rental included in this ordinance, are not commercially rented, do not pay transient occupancy tax (TOT), and owners do not have to report their use to the county.

“We enforce through complaints,” said Barrett. And since the county doesn’t have that many, they haven’t received any complaints, she said.

Marketing accommodations are overnight quarters for distributors, investors or other industry representatives involved with on-site production or processing. They are most likely to be found at wineries and are often approved within a use permit application.

“If they were to be offered commercially, we would pick that up in our web scrape,” said Barrett.

“So let me get this straight, because I have heard of folks wanting to use the marketing accommodations for wine club members and you’re saying that’s not allowable use?” asked Gorin.

“It is not now in our code and the planning commission did not recommend allowing that,” replied Barrett.

Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors agreed with the planning commission in their decision, although it meant they will lose out on collecting TOT money if marketing accommodations can’t be rented commercially. The board also agreed to limit them in size to 640 square feet, no kitchen, and a maximum of two accommodations per site.

Marketing accommodations and farmstays are not allowed on the same property.

LIA-zoned lands are the county’s highest agricultural production areas and comprise 27 percent of the total agricultural land in the county. The majority (80 percent) of LIA zoned lands are within the Fourth Supervisorial District, 17 percent in the First District, and only three percent in the Fifth District. On LIA-zoned properties, there are 52 vacation rentals located in the Fourth Supervisorial District, and nine in the First District. Of these, 37 vacation rentals are located on parcels of less than five acres; 14 vacation rentals are between five and 10 acres; and 11 vacation rentals are located on parcels larger than 10 acres.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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