City Hall

Sonora City Hall at 94 N. Washington St.

New and existing operators of Airbnb-style short-term rentals in Sonora would be subject to new rules under a proposed ordinance being sent to the city’s Planning Commission for review and recommendations.

The Sonora City Council was briefed at a public meeting Monday night on the changes the ordinance would impose to the process of obtaining a permit for operating such rentals, which are defined as any home or dwelling unit being rented out for less than 30 days at a time.

It was the fourth public meeting where the council has discussed the topic since approving a temporary moratorium for processing new permits on March 16 in response to concerns that such rentals have been exacerbating a lack of available long-term housing within the city.

Any new short-term rental would have to be the primary residence of the owner under the proposed ordinance, while people who currently have permits from the city for renting out secondary homes would be exempt from that specific provision.

There is also a provision for any new permittees to offer up their homes as unhosted short-term rentals while they are away for up to 120 days per year, which is meant for people who may leave the area for parts of the year, like seniors who go elsewhere in the summer.

All other rules in the proposed ordinance would apply to both existing and new short-term rentals, including that they could not host special events or commercial functions, they have to provide on-site parking for guests (hosts would be allowed to park on the street), there must be a designated local contact person who can respond to any issues that arise, they must undergo the same regular fire-safety inspections as hotels and other lodging businesses and follow the same requirements, and they must obtain garbage-collection service through Cal Sierra Waste Management.

The current ordinance for short-term rentals also does not provide a way for the city to enforce violations, but the proposed one would allow it to fine those operating unpermitted or breaking the rules by up to $500 per day for the first offense and $1,000 per day for any after that.

Both tenants and operators of the rentals would be subject to being fined for violating the ordinance.

There are currently 36 permitted short-term rentals operating within the city, in addition to 10 others without permits that city officials are aware of by monitoring websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

City Administrator Mary Rose Rutikanga said the city sends letters to the unpermitted short-term rental owners each year telling them they are in violation and ordering them to stop operating to no avail.

An analysis presented to the council during a study session at a public meeting on May 3 found that out of the 36 permitted short-term rentals in the city, only nine were the host’s primary residence, 72% were for the entire home, and 92% were single-family homes.

Each of the 36 rentals also provided an average of about $12,200 per year in earnings for the hosts.

City staff also conducted an analysis of long-term rental availability at the end of March and found no units on the market at the time, with most having waiting lists of up to two years.

Stricter rules on short-term rentals have been enacted in recent years by cities throughout California, the United States and world as the practice has become more commonplace and been blamed for housing shortages in those areas.

Rutikanga said the city received six applications between the time the moratorium was first discussed on March 15 and officially enacted on April 5, of which one was a city resident who lived at the place they would renting, one was from someone who resides in Castro Valley, one from someone who resides in Copperopolis, and three were from the same person who resides in Tuolumne County outside of the city limits.

The council discussed the possibility of moving the moratorium cutoff date up to April 5 so the six who submitted applications between then and March 16 could still be processed under the existing rules, with Mayor Matt Hawkins and Mayor Pro-tem Mark Plummer indicating they were in favor, but there was a lack of consensus because councilmembers Ann Segerstrom, Jim Garaventa, and Colette Such were opposed because they felt it would be unfair.

Community Development Director Rachelle Kellogg said she also received calls from a woman in Southern California who had purchased two properties in the city with the intent of turning them into short-term rentals prior to the moratorium and had yet to submit an application.

There were several other property investors in the same boat, including Tuolumne County resident Matt Zelinsky who has spoken out against the proposed regulations and did so again Monday night.

The proposed ordinance will go to the city Planning Commission on July 12 for a review and recommendations to the council, which will then consider approving it at a meeting after that.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Rutikanga also announced the council would be welcoming back the public to City Hall for in-person meetings beginning at the next regularly scheduled one on July 6.

People who wish to comment at future meetings will have to attend in person, but the city is working on a way to livestream the meetings for those wishing to observe them from home. It will be the first time the public will be allowed back in the council’s chambers since the COVID-19 pandemic began early last year.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.