Short-Term Vacation Rentals in Sonoma County

If you operate or wish to operate a vacation rental in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, you need to make sure you follow certain rules and regulations. This article will explain what a vacation rental owner needs to do in order to be in compliance with the Sonoma County code and avoid fines and additional fees.

In 2009, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed the first ordinance requiring a zoning permit for vacation rentals in the unincorporated areas of the County. A vacation rental is a dwelling rented for 30 days or less. In adopting Ordinance No. 5908, the Board found that short-term rentals of single-family homes comprised a significant segment of the local tourism economy and generated significant transient occupancy taxes (TOT) for the County and, while the majority of the rentals operated without a problem, there had been numerous complaints regarding excessive noise, parking, litter, and concerns regarding, septic capabilities, security, public safety, and trespass.

In 2022, the Board created a new zone called an X Vacation Rental Exclusion Combining District to either exclude new vacation rentals or cap them at 5% or 10% of single-family homes in certain yet-to-be-defined areas. Ordinance No. 6386 also established standards for the operation of vacation rentals related to the maximum number of guestrooms and occupancy, parking, noise, and other operational standards.

In 2023, the Board passed the ordinance that identified the specific areas where vacation rentals are excluded or capped by the X district. The Board found the purposes of the X district are to exclude or limit the concentration of vacation rentals in areas where there is inadequate road access or off-street parking; where the prevalence of vacation rentals is detrimental to the residential character of neighborhoods; where the residential housing stock is to be protected from conversion to visitor-serving uses; where there is a significant fire hazard; where the residential character is to be preserved; and where the Board otherwise determines it is in the public interest to prohibit vacation rentals. Ordinance No. 6423 rezoned specifically defined areas in the 1st (Sonoma to Bennett Valley area), 4th (Fulton to Cloverdale), and 5th (West County) supervisorial districts to the X district to either exclude or cap vacation rentals in those areas. Those specific areas are described in the Official Zoning Data Base (OXD) of Sonoma County.

Also in 2023, the Board passed an ordinance that created a vacation rental business license program. Under Ordinance No. 6427, a licensee must be a property owner or trustee if the property is held in trust, and all property owners must be natural persons. As such, vacation rentals cannot be owned by business entities such as corporations or limited liability companies (LLCs).

In general, the process for obtaining a permit and license to operate a vacation rental in Sonoma County involves four steps:

  1. The owner of the vacation rental must identify or become a Certified Vacation Rental Property Manager located within 30 miles of the vacation rental and that person must pass a County of Sonoma certification exam to become a certified manager.
  2. The owner must obtain a Transient Vacation Rental Permit (aka Zoning Permit) for the property by submitting complete application forms and application materials and paying the fee to the County of Sonoma.
  3. The owner must secure a TOT number from the Sonoma County Auditor-Controller Treasurer-Tax Collector Department.
  4. Finally, the owner must obtain a Vacation Rental License. A Vacation Rental License lasts for one year and the owner must apply to renew their license annually to continue to run a vacation rental. An owner who has been legally operating a vacation rental before June 15, 2023, must obtain a Vacation Rental License by June 15, 2024.

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~Rose M. Zoia is a director and shareholder at Anderson Zeigler. She has been in practice since 1988 and focuses on land use, business formation and transactions, and real estate transactions.