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Commissioners make decision on short-term rentals
BOC does not approve or deny ordinance, favor CUP process

Forsyth County Commissioners have made a decision on a divisive proposed ordinance to deal with short-term rentals in the state, though they did not decide to either outright approve or deny the proposal.

Instead, commissioners approved by a 3-0 vote last night, with Commissioners Pete Amos and Todd Levent absent, a motion to enforce current rules and directed county staff to come back with a plan for a conditional-use permit for the rentals at the commission’s Aug. 21 work session.

“I believe there is value in the exercise that we have gone through,” said District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson, who made the motion. “I believe that we have established some rules for moving forward and potential implementation of a conditional-use permit. A zoning action gives voice to the neighbors and the stakeholders in the process and determines which zoning categories allow short-term lodging services and which do not.”

In her motion, Semanson pointed out the county does not currently allow rentals less than six nights or bed and breakfasts or lodging services in residential districts.

Earlier in the evening, commissioners heard from officials with STR Helper, a company that offers software for compliance tools for short-term rentals. County Manager Eric Johnson said such a service will likely be used in the county plan.

“I think that we can certainly look at getting back with you for a plan for stricter enforcement,” Johnson said. “You saw an illustration tonight from one of two companies. We distributed some information from the other company. Clearly, there are tools that help us clarify the location.”

Johnson said those services could help the county with obtaining tax revenue from those properties.

One of the oft-raised issues was the property rights of the rental owners to use their land to make money versus the property rights of neighbors to enjoy their property peacefully.

“Property rights go both ways,” said District 2 Commissioner Dennis Brown. “There’s no absolute right to use of your property. The constitution has always held … to balance the rights of others, so you don’t have the absolute right to use of your property for anything. That’s why we have the zoning laws.”

Enforcement of any new rules has been a concern for commissioners.

Also likely to be part of the plan is a recently approved noise ordinance that gives law enforcement in the county the ability to write citations for noise over a certain limit – 60 decibels for night time and 70 during the day – from one residential property to another. Officers will have discretion on giving the citations.

In recent years, services like Airbnb have become a popular way for people to find residents who want to rent out a room or their house for short-term stays as a more personal and appealing — and often cheaper — choice over a hotel.

Commissioners have held discussions on the rentals dating back to late 2016, when neighbors living near the homes raised issues with trash, noise and traffic.

Those discussions largely halted in 2017, as it was believed state lawmakers would pick it up in that year’s legislative session. While that was not the case, District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said short-term rentals would be discussed at an Association County Commissioners of Georgia meeting on Friday morning regarding possible upcoming legislation.

In different forms of the proposed ordinance, changes included licensing for owners, a local contact person, different standards depending on whether the home was on septic or sewer systems, limiting rentals to 20 weeks in a year with rentals allowed no more than twice a month, requiring a minimum of seven days for rentals and not allowing renters to reimburse for fewer nights stayed.

As has been the case at several previous meetings where the rental ordinance was discussed, locals on both sides of the issue spoke at length during a public comments portion of the meeting and a public hearing on Thursday.

The opposing sides did not appear to be getting any closer in the meeting, and speakers on both sides declared the rentals either lowered or raised surrounding home values and hurt or help the local economy, depending on which side they were on.

Several of those in favor of the ordinance called for not allowing the rentals at all as they are not allowed in residential areas along with the issues with renters.

“When the STRs were bought and built, they defaulted to the zoning ordinance at that time; their rights were negated,” said Steve Paul. “So, they have no rights, other than the rights that we have. STR renters have been in violation of the county ordinances for years, by their own admission.”

Those who spoke in opposition to the new rules, many of whom offered the rentals at their own homes, said the rules would positively impact the county financially and that many were being punished for a few bad actors.

Resident John McAfee said he had previously offered rentals shorter than six nights and had even gone to county code enforcement about the rentals.

“I did stop by the code enforcement earlier today, and I turned myself in,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ve done this.’ They were not willing to write me a ticket for it. They did say the interpretation was that it was illegal, and I offered to meet up there at some point if they need to verify that I do have a renter on my property for that purpose.”