Sonoma County’s Vacation Rental Betrayal

In a cringe-worthy 4-1 decision (Susan Gorin dissenting) rejecting 14 months of public input and recommendations of the County Planning Commission, Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors has betrayed the public it serves in favor of chump change from tourists looking for a place to party on the weekends.

Despite volumes of testimony, letters, personal accounts and constant pleas for help from residents afflicted with noisy party houses, drunks, haphazardly parked cars, confused strangers and erosion of the customary peace and enjoyment wrought by vacation rentals, the Supervisors have instead chosen to support the unbridled commercialization of residential neighborhoods. While tragic may be too hyperbolic a description, crass and downright stupid are not. All Supervisors but Susan Gorin should be deeply ashamed.

In siding with the forces of greed intent on wringing every cent out of our bucolic and peaceful county, subverting its own zoning designations, and giving the proverbial finger to the work of its Planning Commission, the Supervisors have undermined public confidence and the rule of law altogether. If Pandora’s Box of negative vacation rental impacts had already been opened, this decision tears the lid off and dumps its contents into the laps of weary residents finding themselves impotent to protect their own neighborhoods from degradation.

When full-time residents are replaced by a steady stream of fun-loving visitors the very fabric of community is torn. A neighborhood with few neighbor’s is a neighborhood in name only. We may be past the point of heading next-door to borrow a cup of sugar, but neighborly relationships still matter. For reasons of safety, security and just everyday “hellos” the sanctity of neighborhoods remains one of the last reliably human vestiges in an increasingly isolated society built on digital relationships.

The rise of Airbnb and similar online booking services clearly pose challenges to the traditional role of government as the protector of public health and safety. Effectively enforcing existing laws requires an approach as equally innovative, contemporary and cutting-edge as the technology undermining them. Rather than embracing the challenge and maintaining its commitment to residents, in an act of cowardice four County Supervisors have essentially thrown in the towel.

Some will argue that the tax revenue collected from legal vacation rentals is valuable. I’m not turning up my nose to $5 million annually, but the county’s budget is a whopping $1.4 billion, which renders $5 million nearly insignificant. Balanced against the illegal vacation rentals (and San Francisco recently calculated that illegal vacation rentals account for more than 75% of all vacation rental activity) setting no limits on vacation rentals in residential zones will open the flood gates to a form of commercialization already out of control.

Allowing a spare bedroom to be “shared” (the so-called sharing economy means “I’ll share my bedroom, you share your wallet”) when the owner-resident is present is one thing, but the rental of an entire house is yet another. I’m not surprised that Supervisors Gore and Rabbitt opted to reject limits, and Supervisor Carrillo seems to be his own worst “party animal” enemy, but Supervisor Zane has been an outspoken supporter of affordable housing and aid to the homeless, which makes her complicity in this decision suspect. Supervisor Gorin is to be commended for not following the supervisoral herd.

The County of Sonoma, while wringing its hands over the lack of housing and pleading poverty, has, in this terrible decision, driven perhaps the last nail in the coffin of rental housing availability. The estimated one-thousand legal vacation rentals will now be joined by thousands more, and Sonoma County surrendered to the avarice of speculators seeking to finance the purchase of homes specifically to convert them to vacation rentals.

For those of us living here as full-time residents, we face the sorrowful prospect of watching our beloved county torn asunder by a vacation rental bubble still in the act of expanding. Having been betrayed and abandoned by our elected leaders, all we can do now is wait for it to pop.

28 thoughts on “Sonoma County’s Vacation Rental Betrayal

  1. We agree with everything you said! Let’s never give up! Susan Gorin’s office is recommending that each of us email each Supervisor expressing out concerns and asking for overlay zoning. My husband and I just emailed them all. In addition, we will implore neighbors to call the Sheriff for every, single assault on our quality of life caused by mismanaged vacation rentals. Here are the email addresses:
    District 1:
    District 2:
    District 3:
    District 4:
    District 5:
    If you’d like a copy of our email, just tell me at

  2. The tacky and Hollywood-esq picture chosen for this editorial was clearly selected to paint a (false) picture that vacation renters are having raging and uncontrollable parties. The writer is overtly bias which in my view diminishes any credibility in the message of this article. Regardless of your position on VRBOs, can we try not to make sweeping and inaccurate generalizations in the discussion?

    1. This is an opinion piece, Vanessa, not an article. And my bias is drawn from innumerable accounts provided to me by homeowners now besieged by out-of-control commercial tourism in their formerly quiet neighborhoods. The photo depicts, by comparison to what I have heard, a rather sedate example of what’s often going on after hours; some of these party homes even maintain police-scanners so that they are alerted when the Sheriff’s Department has been dispatched. Feel free to make your case in favor of what’s happening, but try not to minimize the damage vacation rentals are causing to residential neighborhoods.

      1. How long have you lived in sonoma county Larry? You and the rest of the complainers sound like transplants from somewhere else. You complainers drove the prices up and have made it almost impossible for people to afford to live here, maybe this bubble will drive all the transplants away and housing prices will fall so people who were born and raised here can actually afford to live here!

        1. Only have lived here 26 years, Bill, a mere quarter-century-plus. I spent 12 years in public office, specifically because complaining is not enough. And you? Have you engaged with influencing or setting local policy or left it all up to others to craft a vision for the community? As the Bay Area population has grown have you expected Sonoma and Sonoma Valley to be immune from the growth pressure? I don’t see your solution as solving the affordability problem you describe. Any other solutions you can think of?

    2. Hi,
      I can’t speak for everyone but in our neighborhood within 100ft of my home there are 6 vacation homes and /or Airbnb rooms to rent.
      My neighbor, an elderly gentleman, has 2 on either side of him.
      I have had to confront vacationers more times than I should to ask them to keep the noise down. Saying we work very hard to afford to live here and that we deserve on the weekend to not be disturbed by loud partying.
      It does not good as these people are gone the next day. I now will be calling the sheriff every time it’s a problem. Not the best use of our sheriff resources but the council has left me no other choice.

    3. Well said! This article only highlights one side of the argument and clearly there is another positive side to consider.

    4. Vanessa,
      I believe everything Larry is saying is quite accurate and for you to not believe it, you must be a VRBO homeowner or don’t live where VRBOs are – at least not in Healdsburg. Our town is a true tourist trap with all of the wine drinkers flowing into houses in our quiet neighborhoods and quite often disrupting a good night’s sleep. I doubt you would like that happening to you time and time again.

  3. I am concerned about the Supes (except Susan Gorin) selling us out for fad-fueled dollars that will go away when fashions change.
    I remember well the empty resorts in Northern CA when Hawaii became the rage – driving out genuine community members in favor of an “industry” that will fade away is a bad investment.
    I think Larry said it well:
    For those of us living here as full-time residents, we face the sorrowful prospect of watching our beloved county torn asunder by a vacation rental bubble still in the act of expanding. Having been betrayed and abandoned by our elected leaders, all we can do now is wait for it to pop.”

  4. Thank you very much Larry for a beautifully crafted report. I am heartbroken, but not giving up the fight! To learn more about airbnb, VRBO, Sonoma County politics & all things that matter to Sonoma County, I urge you to follow “Preserve Sonoma County Neighborhoods” on Facebook. There is so much more to be done, including an investigation into Carrillo’s finances (political fraud?). It was no coincidence that the room was packed with Russian River vacation rental operators last night, followed by Carrillo’s announcement this morning that he will NOT seek re-election. I believe he may already have a gig with the same vacation rental lobbying group Mike Reily (ex-Sonoma County Supervisor) is working for! We need to demand a new vote on this issue! If we don’t get it, we have several legal avenues to explore!

  5. Well written. Complaints are starting to come in to the City of Santa Rosa. Simply put, there is why we have zoning ordinances.

  6. While I agree some vacation renters will disrespect the community ,there are many who will not. Unfortunately the ones who do not will illicit attention. We recently invested a substantial amount of money to allow for a retreat and subsequently retirement and were dismayed to learn a home that borders our back fence was to be a vacation rental. There were indeed two obnoxious party’s however I had the contact info from the mandated mailings from the rental company to report the intrusion. The company responded immediately and performed everything I asked as in setting the volume control and removing outdoor speakers . My other border neighbors are full time residents and have excessively loud parties some seasons every weekend . Have there guests park on both sides of a narrow non sidewalk street blocking fire truck right away and outside our home . Children who scream to the top of thier lungs for hours with what seems to be no adult supervision or care for others . Because they are here full time there is little we can do other than forge a war . The real issue is inconsiderate , entitled people. When I called the sheriffs dept on the rental property the operator tried to discourage me from having them go out. people who are not getting licenses to operate Airbnb therefor less scrutiny are easy to find on Airbnb , perhaps the community and the government offices should start there . If there are X amount of complaints then licenses are revoked and fines applied . Rarely does a hard stand one way work for a community . However, a round table with majority agreed guildlines may help resolution .

  7. You guys are killing me..with such IRONIC complaints….sorry but it’s too damn funny. Imagine what and how the Native American communities like the “POMOS” felt over two centuries ago, with your Catholic missions, Wineries & Gold Rush??? hhhmmm…? right? I guess we can call it “Manifest Destiny” or just plain old good karma. Just look at the SF housing crisis…you just can’t stop the gravy train….welcome to an old nightmare.

  8. This week three friends reached me regarding their housing nightmares. One family said they’re likely moving to Sacramento..their landlord is selling their rental. Another family friend is looking; their landlord is selling their studio. Another family is being asked to move by Burbank Housing.

  9. Just had dinner with some friends who own a house in Saint Helena and lobbied the city council to allow owners to rent out or exchange their houses. What my friends told me is that most new owners of property there are buying them strictly for the purpose of providing rental income. They fear in one generation that families will not exist in those neighborhoods anymore. No idea if this is true or not. Time will tell

  10. Having attended the Planning Commission meetings, the Supervisors meetings, heard the cries of those who have had their quiet neighborhoods upset, and the voices of many many more who have been allowed to stay in their long-time homes because of the income from vacation rentals, those who are upset with vacation rentals are in the noisy minority. The vacation rental economy has kept many people from becoming homeless. It creates income for the unemployed. It helps owners and renters maintain their homes which increases the beauty of neighborhoods. From listening to all the complaints, it definitely sounds like there are 2 dozen problematic homes in a county with thousands of vacation rentals. It just didnt make sense to set draconian rules on thousands of people when 2 dozen are breaking the rules. It makes much more sense to fix the problems rather than punish everyone. If the Sups voted to punish everyone, the result would simply be that no VR owners would ever register their homes and the problem would be much bigger and untrackable.

  11. What exactly did the text of what the supervisors approved say about “hosted rentals”, the ones where guests are staying in the home WITH the owners? And what exactly is your problem with that?

  12. I am sure the supervisors have a stake in there decisions with friends, relatives and themselves owning vacation rentals!! Something to think about.

  13. same old NIMBY arguments presented by Larry and his followers. I have 3 vacation rentals in my neighborhood that have never been a problem. Quiet young and old couples park a rental car in an orderly manner in the carport of a nicely fixed up (much better than before) little cottage, enjoy themselves for a weekend, and then leave quietly. Drive past it on many occasions. By saying NO to any, we are simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This, like any other issue, needs pragmatism and compromise, together with the same technology that brings us the innovation and the change. I am all for sharpened regulation of vacation rentals, MUCH more aggressive reporting and prosecution of violators (a three strikes and you lose your license approach), but condemning and abolishing all sharing economy rentals is not the solution. Larry’s usual foaming at the mouth, take no prisoners approach is probably the reason he is not in politics anymore. Politics is the process of reasonable and equitable compromise, which is what is needed here.

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