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Napa County is suing the owners of a Tuscan-style house that it alleges has been used as an illegal short-term vacation rental, marking a high-profile county foray into this controversial subject.

The county began investigating the house at 4099 Silverado Trail near St. Helena after receiving an anonymous tip in April 2017. That investigation recently resulted in the lawsuit against Calistoga Wine LLC and Linda Fotsch, who the county says is the sole managing member of Calistoga Wine.

Fotsch couldn’t be reached for a comment by either phone or email.

County officials said they don’t comment on lawsuits that are underway. But Supervisor Ryan Gregory talked about illegal vacation rentals in general and said the practice worsens the area’s housing problems.

“They’re taking housing stock away from folks who should be living here,” Gregory said.

County Code Compliance Supervisor Linda St. Claire said there are several hundred illegal vacation rentals in the unincorporated county outside of the cities. County law prohibits renting out homes for periods of less than 30 consecutive days.

In 2018, code enforcement looked at 18 alleged illegal short-term rentals, among the many other type of code violations cases it also oversees.

“They were all complaint driven,” St. Claire said. “We have so many cases we’re working on that we’re not able to chase them down all the time.”

Gregory would like the county to have more enforcement to uncover the illegal rental operations.

“Just time on the Internet,” Gregory said. “You can really find a lot of them.”

But to successfully litigate, the county must go farther than finding advertisements and book the home, he said.

The county’s first step when it finds what it believes to be an illegal vacation rental is to send out a notice of violation and to give the owner a chance to cease the activity. The lawsuit alleges that Calistoga Wine disregarded warnings in the case of the 4099 Silverado Trail house, prompting the county to take further steps.

On April 7, 2017, the defendants Calistoga Wine accepted a reservation through VRBO.com for an eight-day stay, said the lawsuit filed in Napa County Superior Court. The county sent a notice of apparent violation.

On April 26, 2017, the defendants accepted a reservation for a 12-day stay. Fotsch sent by email a confirmation and rental agreement. The county again sent a notice demanding that the property not be used as a short-term vacation rental. The defendant continued advertising the property on vacation rental websites, the lawsuit said.

On July 17, 2018, the defendants accepted a reservation for five days, with Fotsch emailing the agreement. The defendants accepted $5,650 toward a stay that cost $1,270 per night, a $250 cleaning fee, a $320 service fee and a $900 refundable deposit, the lawsuit said.

Furthermore, the defendants neither collected transient occupancy tax for the rental nor gave transient occupancy tax to the county, the lawsuit said.

Napa County wants the alleged short-term vacation rental activities shut down, payment of back transient occupancy taxes and payment of civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day per violation, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit involving the house at 4099 Silverado Trail lists a website that the owners used to attract customers. This website, which calls the rental the St. Helena Vineyard Villa, remained available online in late December.

St. Helena Vineyard Villa can be rented starting at $1,195 a night during regular season and $1,295 to $1,395 a night during the height of the tourist season. It has five beds, three baths and sleeps 10, the website said.

“Elegant home and separate guest quarters situated on a 33-acre vineyard located between St. Helena and Calistoga on the valley floor,” the website said. “Tuscan-style single-level home exclusively located in the heart of Napa Valley. Near world-famous wineries and restaurants.”

However, the VRBO.com website now lists the minimum stay as 31 nights, which would be legal under county law since the time period falls outside the county’s short-term vacation rental definition.

St. Claire said people who see an illegal, short-term rental can contact county code enforcement. Go to https://bit.ly/2LCeVh7 to see the online complaint form.

Local cities have also been dealing with houses they say are used as illegal, short-term vacation rentals.

For the city of Napa, the issue had a high profile in 2015 amid the boom for Airbnb and other Internet vacation home rental booking services. The city had issued 41 permits at the time to legally rent entire homes to vacationers with the owner absent.

The City Council agreed to also make 60 permits available to homeowners who could rent out bedrooms to vacationers. The owners would have to live at the houses.

Still, the city in 2016 claimed to be looking at several hundred cases of possible illegal rentals.

In late 2016, the county District Attorney filed criminal charges against a man for allegedly using a city of Napa home as an illegal vacation rental and failing to heed city warnings to stop. Neighbors complained about a flow of overnight visitors, noise and traffic at the house.

This homeowner was jailed and fined $204,000. He eventually agreed to pay $25,000 after filing for bankruptcy and to sell the house.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.