OPINION: Permanent Resident’s Bill of Rights in a World of Vacation Rentals
Toward an Enforceable Code of Responsible Conduct for the Vacation Rental Industry in Sonoma County
Most permanent residents of Sonoma County have duly paid property taxes and been a
stable part of established cohesive communities, often for decades, and continue to
have a vested interest in the adoption of stable local policies that maintain public safety,
encourage civilized decorum, prevent property crime and violence, and ensure reliable
universal access to emergency services.
Toward sustaining these goals, the following principles need to be institutionalized and
1) Capacity: Existing vacation rental ordinance limitations already clearly specify the
operational capacity of each available living structure based on the number of
bedrooms, the number of guests, and the number of required off-street parking
spaces that must be provided onsite by the rental property owner. Compliance,
however, for each of these conditions is largely left to an ad-hoc voluntary “honor
system”, thus actual application of these principles is often ignored by off-site
managers and distant owners.
2) Parking: In many rural local communities that may predate the Subdivision Map
Act, or which even predate the existence of any formal planning department in
Sonoma County, small parcel size is a reality. Often, newly-arriving buyers fence
off portions of their parcels in the hope of creating a more desirable yard and patio
space for their anticipated vacation rental tenants, and in the process the owners
fence off “as built” off-street parking spaces, rendering them unusable. This
fencing off of traditional parking areas can thus displace vacation rental parking
onto public street frontage or into adjoining private driveways, compromising fire
lanes and neighboring vehicular access and egress needs. Vacation rental
operators should be strictly held to providing their own onsite parking spaces for
their rental tenants. A blocked fire lane can mean the difference between life and
death for an ailing medical patient, or make the critical difference between first
responders successfully quelling a spreading housefire or having instead a total
loss to a fully-involved structure fire.
3) Lack of Screening of Vacation Rental Tenants: The current era of inexpensive
worldwide internet advertising offers vacation rental management companies an
easy and economical online method for recruiting prospective customers from a
global pool of vacationers. The simple ability of a prospective customer to be able
to locate a rental property on a computer screen, however, is no indication of theircharacter, their social behavior, their awareness of routine safety precautions, or
any other norms of responsible tenancy. A single quick phone call with a
prospective tenant or a traditional check of their creditworthiness is not an
adequate method of screening prospective tenants.
4) Public Safety: For a community in transition to vacation rental industry
dominance, the prospect of fewer permanent residents, supplanted instead by
short-term transitory rental tenants focused on recreational activities, inevitably
means fewer eyes on the community. With direct oversight from off-site managers
often unavailable anywhere nearby, the resulting lack of vigilance creates a
compelling need for increased law enforcement patrols and property checks,
particularly in smaller communities without a paid security patrol presence.
Whether such community safety patrols should be the responsibility of the County
Sheriff, or instead fall to a contractual neighborhood watch service, needs to be
determined, but ignoring public safety in entire neighborhoods where unknown
tenants come and go every two or three days is not a workable strategy long term.
5) Fire Prevention and Preparedness: Vacation rentals often provide the ambience
of cozy woodburning fireplaces or wood stoves to visitors who are otherwise
accustomed to automated central heating systems at home and who are often
unfamiliar with the normal safety precautions associated with the use of wood heat.
The resulting residential housefires can threaten human life and valuable property,
thus all onsite woodburning devices should be required to include permanentlyaffixed cautionary signage, and to provide obvious labeled nonflammable metal
containers for storage and disposal of hot fireplace ashes, with both of these safety
features permanently attached in highly-visible locations and situated in such
manner that this signage cannot be obscured or defaced. Readily available
garden hoses of adequate length with nozzles need to be provided outdoors, and
onsite indoor firefighting equipment such as fire extinguishers, should both be a
prominent feature of every vacation rental. Those engaged in commercial
housekeeping services provided to property managers should be fully educated in
the safe disposal of hot ashes from woodburning stoves, barbeques, and
6) Evacuation and Emergency Plans: Community-wide emergencies and mass
evacuations unfortunately appear to be an increasingly frequent occurrence in our
County, from more extensive winter flooding, to a longer dry season with more and
worsening wildfires, to the new phenomenon of “Planned Power Outages” imposed
by public utilities, sometimes with concurrent mandatory community-wide
evacuations. While local residents rely on Nixle, on other social media, and on
traditional broadcast venues to remain aware of developing emergency situations,
visiting vacation renters often are left unaware of such alerts unless proactively
reached by phone by an off-site property manager, or unless a local deputy
actually comes to their door. Each vacation rental should exhibit a clearly-posted evacuation and emergency response form which speaks to site-specific evacuation
guidance, informing short-term renters of what they should be doing if an
emergency occurs. Simply quickly giving verbal instructions to newly-arriving
vacation renters to “Call 9-1-1” is an inadequate method for dealing with the range
of threats to public safety now posed by potential seasonal circumstances, leaving
rental tenants little option but to “go next door and knock on the door” to find out
what to do.
7) Limited Water Supplies: Many vacation rentals are located in water-scarce rural
areas served either by a small community water system or by limited storage tanks
fed by individual wells on the parcel on which the residence is located.
Consumption of water at volumes to which town-dwellers are accustomed often
leads to water shortages for other residents on the system, to overloaded septic
leach fields, and often, to unanticipated protracted water outages at the rental
property itself. Educating renters about limited water availability may require a few
extra minutes of a property manager’s time, but is necessary during the kind of
drought conditions now prevailing over much of the year in Sonoma County.
8) Realtors’ Overzealous Claims to Prospective Buyers: Some agents in the real
estate industry have, on occasion, stimulated closing of residential sales contracts
using the promotional claim that vacation rental revenues can essentially be relied
upon to cover mortgage payments in virtually any circumstance. This marketing
ploy gives the buyer the often-false hope that someday they will retire in a house
paid for by vacation rental revenues, a fantasy that only rarely comes to pass.
Unanticipated factors can preclude the fulfilment of this outcome, and with the
advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many buyers are finding out the hard way that
such hopes do not always reliably translate into a payment-free future retirement
home. Creating what can be false expectations on the part of prospective buyers
indirectly sets the stage for subsequent carelessness and lack of tenant screening,
and eventually to problems like noncompliance with Public Health Orders and
mandatory evacuations that ultimately fail to be heeded as absentee operators try
to milk every penny of rental revenue from their site.
9) Vandalism, Littering, Trespass: Because vacation rental tenants sometimes
bring with them no pride of place, antisocial behaviors not acceptable where they
live may emerge since they feel that they have suddenly become anonymous and
unidentifiable strangers in a community with no law enforcement presence.
Resulting aberrant tenant behaviors run the gamut from public nudity, throwing
litter over a fence onto neighboring yards, interpersonal violence, and in rare
instances, offsite owners themselves engaging in property crime and vandalism
such as the unauthorized cutting of neighboring vegetation with chain saws while
attempting to gain a new scenic view their parcel never previously enjoyed.
10)Pets: Irresponsible treatment of pets by vacation renters seems to result from the
perceived distance from animal control services, and offsite managers appear to
have little interest in this problem. But the resulting noise and risk factors to
neighbors’ safety are not something that can continue to be ignored in this
11)Public Intoxication: For many vacation rentals, a holiday getaway is a time to
drink alcohol to excess, thus leaving the neighborhood to bear the brunt of out-of-control drunken parties, loud obscene language, and high-volume music. This is
not fair to a quiet neighborhood, particularly one occupied by families with children.
12)Repairs: Appliances sometimes just fail, water pumps go out, and visitors may
become inadvertently locked out of their rental, but adjacent neighbors should not
bear the brunt of responding to these problems. An available call list of repair
providers and other services should be clearly placed in each rental unit.
13)Ready Availability of Property Manager 24-7: As a precursor of a permit to
operate a vacation rental, a working 24-7 phone contact for the property manager
should be provided to each and every neighboring resident, for obvious reasons.
This rarely happens currently.
14)Liability: Visitors sometimes have accidents, an unfortunate given. Absentee
vacation rental owners should show evidence of adequate home and umbrella
insurance policies, or, if none are forthcoming, to instead post a bond covering any
eventuality for a reasonable level of liability posed by the use of the rental property,
thereby fully indemnifying neighboring properties and protecting guests of the
15)Houseguests: Houseguests are an inevitable part of vacation rentals, and if they
become “incapacitated”, they tend to unexpectedly stay over. That is just how
things seem to work. The number of allowable houseguests needs to be firmly
capped and this cap needs to be strictly enforced.
16)Community Relations and Right to Privacy: Each offsite vacation rental
manager needs to conduct proactive outreach to each permanent resident in the
neighborhood, making it clear who to contact in case of disturbance or emergency
and inform the community-at-large of how best to reach management quickly when
17)Social Standards: During the mandatory 2020 Sonoma County Public Health
Order, which formally suspended all vacation rental activity unless for visiting
essential healthcare workers staying for a longer duration, multiple vacation rental
properties in Sonoma County ignored this Order entirely and continued to openly
advertise online and flagrantly rent to short-term rental tenants, often to large groups with out-of-state license plates. When the “reopening” took place, no
consequences whatsoever ensued for the known violators, which is an affront to
those operators who complied, and an insult to permanent residents who duly
sheltered-in-place as directed. This illegal practice created an unnecessary public
health risk in the affected communities, and the transient visitors, often without
protective masks, felt entitled to head out into clearly barricaded and closed
parklands for recreational pursuits, thereby creating extra work, and requiring
unwanted interpersonal enforcement contacts, for already-overtaxed park rangers.
Failure of a vacation rental owner or operator to comply with a Public Health Order
should result in real, tangible consequences, or anarchy in this industry is the
unacceptable and unproductive result. It should be inherently obvious that
permanent residents have an intrinsic right to a safe neighborhood, particularly in
the case of the many elderly or health-compromised permanent residents who are
sheltered-in-place as directed.
Name withheld pending approval to publish