In the end, not even Forsyth County Commissioners could agree to new rules for short-term rentals in the county.
On Thursday, commissioners voted 3-2, with District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent and District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills opposed, to approve new rules for short-term rentals, which would only allow the rentals in agriculturally-zoned areas, thus prohibiting them from residential areas, and requiring a conditional-use permit, which will be required as of Jan. 1, 2020.
Short-term rentals have 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 Levent and Mills, after neighbors living near 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.
In recent years, services like Airbnb have become a popular way for people 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.
The change approved by commissioners defines short-term rentals as “accommodations for transient guests, rented for the purpose of overnight lodging for a period less than 30 days.” Bed and breakfasts and boarding houses are not considered short-term rentals.
Additional considerations would be the number of people staying overnight, the number of guests during the day, number of bedrooms, information on parking, lot sizes, the distance for lot lines and sewer capacity.
Only properties zoned agricultural district (A1) or agricultural-residential (Ag-Res) can apply.
While the debate has been heated between those for and against the change, there was also some animosity between commissioners during their discussion.
Before voting against the change, Levent said the new rules were too onerous for both applicants and the county and said he favored a different type of permitting process.
Mills said that putting the rentals only in agriculturally-zoned areas would mean there would be little to none at homes on Lake Lanier, which are in Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson’s district and have been a keystone in the argument over the rentals.
“I like our chair, but I find it is protecting her own district,” Mills said. “It’s taking all the short-term rentals out of her district and putting it all in mine and putting in District 1 … I think you’re bringing forth a motion that you haven’t even look at.”
Semanson responded that she felt the rentals were appropriate in agricultural areas as they weren’t typically in neighborhoods and have separation from other properties.
“You guys are saying that you don’t want it in ag and ag-res. We can shut the whole thing down. It sounds like that’s what you’re saying. What you’re saying is you want me to have it in my district, you want to have it on the lake, which you do not represent,” Semanson said. “You are saying that you’re feeling you don’t want the pressure of having it in your district.”
District 1 Commissioner Molly Cooper said she had no issue with limiting where the rentals could go.
“I do not have any concern about that at all, because I am aware that that is not in areas that are designated specifically neighborhood residential,” she said, later adding, “STRs are definitely a business. There was some [uncertainty] in the past in the meetings. This is a business. You’re doing business in a residential area. Period.”
After several speakers in favor of the rentals said the change would likely result in lawsuits, County Attorney Ken Jarrard said he could see an as-applied legal challenge, which he said gets “into the specifics of who’s doing what, how long and under what circumstances they’ve done this.”
“I think the challenge that would be made legally against the county is when we attempt to shut someone down and we use this ordinance … they say, ‘No, I’ve been doing it before and I’m grandfathered. You can’t stop me,’” Jarrard said.
When asked by Semanson if it was likely the rules would be overturned since rentals have never been allowed under the code, Jarrard said he was “not suggesting it would be successful” but felt it was the most likely challenge.
For the rentals
The debate around the rentals was also heated for those both for and against the new rules, with speakers on both sides hurling accusations at the other.
Instead of the normal allotted 10 minutes per side, commissioners gave each side 20 minutes, with the caveat that each speaker only had 90 seconds until all speakers had a chance, after which some speakers spoke for a second time.
Those who own or support the rentals have long argued that it is their property right to have the rentals, that all are being punished for a few bad actors. They have favored a policy of self-regulation.
“What you are effectively doing is banning short-term rentals in the county by doing agriculture,” said county resident Peter Bertell. “There is not a stricter law in the country than what you would enact in this county.”
Several speakers said they relied on the income, felt the local government was overreaching and believed the rentals were the only way for those who could not afford a lakefront home could enjoy staying at the lake.
Resident Al Webster said those in favor of the rentals had already met with an attorney who had argued in favor of such rentals before the state supreme court and he expected the fight to continue through the courts.
“I just don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to defend all of those lawsuits,” Webster said. “Short-term rental owners that are making a decent income from their properties, they’re not greedy, but it’s America. It’s called free enterprise. They’re not just going to shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh well, I guess I have to sell our vacation home.’”
For the change
Those in favor of the change saw things differently and said the main issues at play were zoning and operating a commercial business in a residential area.
“Regulating short-term rentals is not government overreach,” said Ed Stanczak. “With the enactment of Forsyth County’s [unified development code] several years ago, the board of commissioners got into the zoning business. Making decisions about how properties are used in Forsyth County is exactly what you’re required to do as an elected body.”
Along with Stanczak, several speakers voiced concerns with traffic, trash and noise from renters.
“I just think … an STR tears apart the fabric of a community of a neighborhood,” said Karen Cobb. “We have experienced that and continue to experience this barrage of strangers. They’re not our neighbors, they’re not people we can get to know. Even the well-behaved ones, it’s a constant barrage of strangers. It’s unsettling and unnerving. Please give us our neighborhood back.”