For Forsyth County officials, coming up with plans from short-term rentals has been a long-term process, and the latest foray led to many similar arguments made by the community as past meetings.
On Tuesday, commissioners held a special called work session at the Forsyth County Administration Building to discuss short-term rentals, which has been a debate in the county for more than two years. Discussions on the topic date back to 2016, when the only current commissioners on the board at that time were District 3’s Todd Levent and District 4’s Cindy Jones Mills.
“We’ve all been discussing this, like I said, anywhere from several months to a couple of years now depending on how long our tenure has been on the board,” Chairwoman Laura Semanson said near the beginning of the meeting. “We feel like we’re hearing a lot of the same arguments over and over again, so the first thing I wanted to try to tackle today was any outstanding issues that any of us on the board felt like had not been answered sufficiently [and] lingering questions of how it’s impacting people on both sides of the issue.”
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 some homes used for short-term rentals raised concerns.
Since then, there have been more than a dozen meetings where the issue has come up, and commissioners have attempted to strike a balance between the property rights of the rentals’ owners and their neighbors.
After several previous plans, the iteration currently being discussed would set up a conditional-use permit system – which would have to be applied for by owners and approved by commissioners – for the rentals in residential zoning districts but not in neighborhoods.
The county would also contract a third-party company to identify the rentals and send a note to owners identifying the change. If approved, short-term rental owners would have to have the permit by January 2020 or face penalties.
Under current rules, rentals shorter than a week must be done through hotels, lodging services, bed and breakfasts and boarding houses.
At a previous meeting, the county’s planning commission unanimously recommended denial of the change and favored a licensing and permitting system that excludes the rentals from residential areas.
Before holding public comments, commissioners spoke with those enforcing the rules through the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s code compliance department.
Steve Zaring, director of code compliance, said data from a third-party source showed there were about 250 rentals in the county earlier this year but those figures could fluctuate. He said his department has received about 20 complaints related to short-term rentals since 2014.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the information we got was after-the-fact. It occurred on a Saturday night and the neighbors either sent an email, online complaint or made a phone call to the office,” he said. “The information we got was very good. They supplied us the rental numbers and stuff like that, and we were able to go on these rental sites and were able to verify … that that is a rental property.”
The board also heard from members of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, who said the rentals were not part of Chamber plans.
“I was here just a few months ago to kind of share with you how the short-term rentals are contributing, and, quite honestly, they’re not,” said Michele Daniels, the Chamber’s director of tourism. “It’s not part of our strategy to advocate for them. It’s not part of our bidding strategy for sports tournaments or for the film industry or any of the wedding industry, because the short-term rentals, historically, the operators don’t engage as volunteers, they don’t contribute financially to the marketing efforts to recruit more visitors and the visitor development.”
While there was some discussions by individuals on opposing sides in the audience, there was less consensus when speakers took their turn at the podium.
Those who were in favor of or operated the rentals decried the proposed changes as government overreach and favored a policy of self-regulation.
“What [rental owners] decided is they would opt-in to a system that we have state-wide of self-regulation,” said Pam O’Dell with the Short-Term Rental Owners Association of Georgia. “The determination [from others] has been that is all we’re going to do; of course not. Government has a role. We never said that’s all we’re going to do, but it is an important piece and piece that you can’t do.”
Semanson referred to the plan of self-regulation as a “Hail Mary.”
“I think that the idea that is being pitched here in the 11th hour of self-regulation in the face of two-and-a-half years of thoughtful interaction with our community has got to be setting it back, that’s my personal opinion,” she said.
Several speakers opposed to the rentals reiterated that they did not believe the rentals were appropriate in residential areas.
“Speaking for most of the people I know involved in this, all I want is short-term rentals limited, restricted or banned in residential, family neighborhoods only,” said county resident Jay Hendrix. “We couldn’t care less, in fact, we encourage, short-term rentals in other places in the county. Residential family neighborhoods have always been understood to be protected family living environments away from business where peace, privacy and quality of life and security were ensured.”