ACC Commission may sharply regulate short-term rentals

The ACC Commission is getting ready to crack down on short-term rentals like Airbnbs and VRBOs by passing a text amendment to the ACC zoning code next month.

If passed, the text amendment would require short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods to be operated by someone who lives there most of the time. These operators would have to apply for home occupation permits before they’d be licensed to run such a business out of their homes. 

They’d also have to provide proof that they lived in the home they wanted to rent out, such as a driver’s license or homestead exemption. Anyone who didn’t own their home would be required to obtain written approval from their landlord before offering it as a short-term rental.

Furthermore, the text amendment would prohibit owner-occupied short-term rentals from using on-street parking. Off-street parking would be limited to one car per bedroom. It would also prevent people from renting out more than one structure on their property. If you have a garage apartment, for example, you would be unable to offer it and your house for rent at the same time.

Short-term rentals that did not comply with all of these requirements would have at most two years to get into compliance before they’d be forced to close. If a non-complying short-term rental property was sold or stopped offering rentals for a year, it would lose the right to operate immediately.

Short-term rentals in commercial zones would be allowed as they are today. However, commercial operators would have to provide the name, address and phone number for a local contact to all property owners within 300 feet of the short-term rental. This would allow nearby residents a chance to complain about rowdy tenants, which they don’t always have today.

Short-term rentals in agricultural or multifamily zones would also be allowed as they are today, but they would require individual approval (i.e., a special-use permit). Agricultural neighborhood zones would be treated as single-family zones and would not allow short-term rentals after the two-year period expires unless operated by someone who lives there most of the time.

Why is this happening?

Most people reading this have probably used and enjoyed short-term rental homes at one point or another. Others appreciate Airbnb for the ability it gives them to make some extra money and build wealth for themselves. These people might wonder why the commission is considering regulating these types of rentals so sharply.

The major problem the commission wants to address are the noise and traffic issues short-term rentals cause in single-family neighborhoods.

For years, out-of-town landlords have rented out “party houses” across Athens that cause noise, parking problems and sometimes poorly-concealed obscene behavior in otherwise quiet neighborhoods. These short-term rentals have gotten so disruptive in certain areas that they’ve become an important issue for local voters. Just as bad, short-term rentals tend to reduce the housing stock that’s available, both for sale and in the normal long-term rental market.

The expansion of short-term rentals across Athens may have been lucrative for some investors but it has caused problems for nearly everyone else who lives here. It’s one reason why housing prices have exploded in recent years.

The commission has heard so many complaints about short-term rentals over the past several years that they’ve finally decided to do something about it.

The ACC Planning Commission weighs in, greatly strengthening the proposal

Last September, the commission banned all new short-term rentals temporarily. The moratorium gave the local government time to craft the current set of regulations under consideration this month. 

Most of these regulations were first approved in concept by the commission’s Government Operations Committee back in 2022. The current, up-to-date proposal was approved by the ACC Planning Commission this month in a 6-2 vote. 

The planning commission made one major change to the proposal during their deliberations which has greatly strengthened it. They added the sunset provision (which we’ve already discussed) that will stop all non-conforming short-term rentals from operating after a hard two-year deadline.

The two-year sunset provision was not originally included in the Government Operations Committee’s recommendation. ACC staff had only suggested capping the number of corporate-run short term rentals that would be grandfathered-in. These non-conforming rentals would not have had a hard deadline but would have slowly faded away as the properties were eventually sold or if they paused operations for whatever reason.

This plan was defensible from a legal perspective but would have meant that a significant number of short-term rentals would get to stay in single-family neighborhoods for an indefinite period of time. That wasn’t good enough for ACC Planning Commissioner Sarah Gehring, who suggested the two-year sunset provision described above which will eliminate short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods on a much quicker timetable. 

Sarah Gehring
Planning Commissioner Sarah Gehring

ACC Planning Director Brad Griffin has doubts that Gehring’s proposal would be able to stand up under legal scrutiny. However, Gehring argues that the question is not one of legal authority, but whether two years is enough time to respect the vested rights of short-term rental owners.

“Georgia case law says that it’s generally permissible for municipalities to terminate ‘over time’ non-conforming uses,” Gehring told APN. But “the question of ‘over how much time’ is one for which there isn’t much guidance from the courts.”

Is two years long enough? Only a judge can determine that, but Gehring thought adding this provision was worth the risk because even if it is struck down in court, the other regulations should remain intact and we’ll be no worse off.

Now it’s up to the ACC Commission

The moratorium on short-term rentals is currently set to expire at midnight on February 6, putting pressure on commissioners to take some kind of action at their next voting meeting. 

However, not all commissioners are certain what they want to do. Commissioner Dexter Fisher asked if they could delay the decision for a month, but Griffin informed him that would actually be impossible due to a quirk in the ACC code regarding text amendments. As a result, Fisher may end up voting against the regulations next month. 

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Even if a majority of commissioners agree with Fisher, that’s not the end for this legislation and they could always instruct ACC staff to send it back to them for reconsideration at a later date.

But most commissioners seemed ready to vote yes.

“I think we ought to move forward on this,” said Commissioner Mike Hamby. “I certainly recognize what the folks in Riverbend, Glenwood, Milledge Terrace and Parkway are dealing with. I know they want us to move forward on doing something to help address [the party houses]. We have waited over a year for this and it’s time to move forward.”

Next Steps

Both moderates like Hamby and progressives like Commissioner Jesse Houle have expressed support for the regulations, making them likely to pass on February 6.

The local government will then hire a contractor to provide software and support to help track short-term rentals in Athens and ensure that they comply with the new regulations. The contractor will create a list of short-term rentals in Athens, especially those that would not be legal any longer when the two-year grace period expires. 

The list of legal non-conforming properties will be published on the ACC website, and short-term rental operators will have a chance to appeal to the ACC Planning Department if their rental is not on the list.

Going forward, the local government will hire a new Short-Term Rental Coordinator position funded using hotel / motel tax revenue. This new employee will be responsible for enforcing the regulations.

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