Downtown Sonora

An aerial view of downtown Sonora.

A moratorium approved Monday night by the Sonora City Council will temporarily prohibit new Airbnb-style rentals while city staff analyzes their impact on the overall availability of housing in the area.

The council voted 4-0, with Mayor Matt Hawkins absent, to approve the temporary ban until city staff can provide recommendations on possible changes to the permitting process for such short-term rentals within the 3-square-mile city limits.

“There are a lot of competing interests, and the competition between someone who has invested a great deal of many is very serious,” said Mayor Pro-tem Mark Plummer, “but if we have people who are working people simply unable to find housing, that is also a serious interest that we have to consider.”

City Administrator Mary Rose Rutikanga said she anticipated a “multi-month process” to research and come up with recommendations on changes to an ordinance approved by the council in 2015 that requires people to get a permit through the city before advertising such rentals.

There are currently 36 short-term rentals within the city limits that have active permits within the past six months, according to a staff report included with public documents for the council’s meeting on Monday.

An additional 10 short-term rentals within the city have also been advertised online in the past year without an active permit.

Rutikanga said city staff regularly monitor websites like Airbnb and VRBO for unpermitted rentals and send letters to the owners notifying they are operating illegally, but the ordinance does not provide penalties or other ways to enforce the requirements.

The report also said that city staff was unable to find any long-term rentals available within the city as of March 31, with several listings having wait lists of one to two years.

The moratorium is actually effective as of March 16, because the council directed city staff at a meeting on March 15 to put the issue of limiting short-term rentals within the city on a future agenda. 

Six applications for new short-term rentals had been submitted to the city since March 16, including three from the same business based in Tuolumne County, one from a resident of Castro Valley, one from a resident of Copperopolis, and one from a city resident who resides at the property they also want to rent out.

Matt Zelinsky addressed the council at the meeting during public comment as one of those with a pending application submitted since March 16. He said he invested more than $400,000 in a piece of property within the city back in November to turn into two Airbnb rentals without knowing a moratorium was being considered.

Zelinsky said he spent 25 years working for the county Sheriff’s Office before being forced to retire due to injuries and was looking at the investment in the rental property as a new source of income for him and his family.

“To act like Airbnbs are devastating this community and the rental community is ridiculous,” he said, adding that they contribute to tourism and bring visitors who provide income for other local businesses.

In an interview after the meeting, Rutikanga acknowledged the council will have to consider balancing the interests of property owners and businesses that also provide revenue for the city with the overall housing situation.

The council will have to provide direction on any proposed ordinance, which would then have to be approved by the city Planning Commission before going to the council for final consideration.

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

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