Deck collapse adds fuel to debate over vacation rentals
Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.
The messy end of a party at a rented house in west Sonoma County — where a deck collapsed Sunday morning under the weight of a large crowd of young revelers — has spotlighted an effort by the county to regulate vacation rentals.
At least one teenager was hospitalized after the event and there were unconfirmed reports of several other injuries.
Michaela Richardson, 18, of Santa Rosa, underwent surgery for a broken bone that could lead to her losing a foot, her mother said.
“We won't know anything for four months about whether she has circulation in that bone,” Jody Richardson said, referring to the talus bone, which forms the lower ankle joint, contains an artery, and can die if its blood supply is lost.
“It's a mess,” Richardson said. “And the worst part of it is that I don't know what the future will be for her.”
Partygoers and deputies who responded to the party estimated that between 300 and 400 people were at the Saturday night event on Sweetwater Springs Road, near Armstrong Redwoods State Park.
A public workshop was already set for Jan. 26 to review a proposed ordinance that would set standards for vacation rentals in the county, Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo's office confirmed Tuesday. The ordinance would limit the number of overnight guests and visitors based on the number of bedrooms at a rental property. It also would require the lodgings to be permitted.
The move toward an ordinance was spurred last year by complaints from Sonoma Valley residents that large homes were being rented out for events that turned into disruptive, alcohol-fueled bashes.
There are an estimated 1,000 homes that fall into the “vacation rental by owner” category in the county. While largely incident-free, the homes have become known to law enforcement for a variety of less than agreeable uses.
“At one point we had a house where they were shooting X-rated movies in a residential area,” said Sonoma County Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey. “But the big problem is these massive parties where they'll rent it out for a weekend.”
That was the case apparently at the Stillwater Springs Road home where a party on Friday led to a far larger Saturday party that some participants described as overflowing with alcohol and drugs and that culminated in the deck collapse.
It was the first party in a vacation rental that “raised to the level of triggering an incident report from the sheriff's office,” said Ben Neuman, code enforcement manager at the county's Permit and Resource Management Department.
A Sebastopol resident, Nick Gruber, 20, rented the house for $295 a night. He told deputies that he'd planned a small party for 15 to 20 people “but that more and more persons kept arriving,” said a sheriff's department report on the incident.
The report describes a scene full of “alcohol containers that littered the inside and outside of the residence” and an aftermath where the collapsed deck crushed a Lincoln Town Car parked beneath it.
Although several guests said they paid $5 to enter and that much of the crowd was under age 21, the report says Gruber denied buying the alcohol or charging admission.
“At this time there is insufficient evidence to support a filing that Gruber was hosting an alcohol-supplied party for underage persons,” the report by Deputy Jerry Turney says.
Jody Richardson said she had not asked her daughter whether she paid an admission, but, asked if her daughter had been drinking, she said; “I have no doubt that they all were.”
“There's still a lot of follow-up being done,” said McCaffrey. “If admission was being charged and alcohol was being served to minors then we essentially have some criminal violations there and that's what we're looking into.”
He said deputies found no evidence of drug use at the party.
Richardson said she has her own vacation rental on the Sonoma Coast, and that she has no concerns about them. The “onus” she said, is on “whoever the property manager is. I cannot believe a property management company allowed a 20-year-old to rent a home.”
She said: “My 18-year-old could tell me with a straight face that, ‘Oh, Mom, we're gong to use the coast house and it's only going to be me and a few friends, and I would never take her word for it — only because I was that age once.”
The owner of the property management company that handles the bookings for the Stillwater Springs Road home said she tends to worry more about people in their early 30s, because “they seem to be more the hard partying ones.”
Her company, Russian River Getaways, does “say that we don't rent to anyone under 21,” Camille LeGrand said, but that's to deter people trying to throw graduation and prom-related parties. “We don't have a hard and fast rule about it.”
In Gruber's case, she said, “It wouldn't have mattered, he had such a compelling story. Here he is leaving for Afghanistan, he wanted to propose, he's got this military bearing, this firm handshake, he looks you in the eye.”
She said Gruber had spoken to several other area agencies about renting a house, but had apparently not liked or been able to afford what he was offered.
“We were just the lucky one,” she said.
The sheriff's report says Gruber told deputies he was deploying to Iraq soon and that he said “he did not actually see the deck collapse.”
Gruber's mother said Monday her son was on the deck when it fell and that he suffered a spinal injury. She also said he was deploying to Afghanistan. Neither she nor Gruber returned calls on Tuesday.
As questions of liability hovered on Tuesday, county officials said they had arranged to visit the house today to examine the deck to see whether it met building codes.
“The real liability issues, really, matter between the insurance company and the person who caused the damage,” LeGrand said.
The Jan. 26 public workshop follows a series of meetings of a task force of county officials vacation rental industry leaders.
Regarding the proposed ordinance, Thera Butarro, a member of the Sonoma County Lodging Association who took part in the discussions, said, “I'd say it's 95 percent of what we do already.”
Butarro, co-owner of Bodega Bay and Beyond, a vacation rental company that manages about 80 properties, said, “At first, their plan was phasing out all vacation rentals, and we went, ‘What?'”
Carrillo, one of two county supervisors who has been working with the task force, said Tuesday that while an ordinance may ultimately contain some enforcement provisions that might apply to similar incidents in the future, it would likely not have stopped Saturday's party from taking place.
“I don't think that the ordinance we're working on would have prevented this event from happening,” Carrillo said. “It seems to me that the renter made a terrible decision and broke the contract.”
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