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What’s the latest on short-term rental rules?
Lake rental
- Scott Rogers FCN regional staff

For more than two years, Forsyth County Commissioners have taken on the task of trying to strike a balance between owners of short-term rental properties and their neighbors. During a fiery-at-times meeting on Thursday, there seemed to be little consensus between the sides.

Commissioners held their most recent public meeting on Thursday at their regular work session, including giving both sides extra time over the normal 10 minutes given to each side to discuss their issues and deputies having to approach one speaker to leave the podium.

Commissioners said early on they would not take action during the meeting, and a meeting was set for 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 19 for both sides to further discuss the issues.

“I would say before we have another public hearing, we need to have a big roundtable meeting one more time, the way we've done in the past,” said District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent. “What’s happening is we’re so close to getting some consensus from all sides to where we probably had the closest mediation success you’ll have, and now, it’s been changed so much you can see it’s off the hook again.”

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 issues with trash, noise and traffic.

Since then, there have been more than a dozen meetings where the issue has come up as commissioners attempt to strike a balance on 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.

“As the [unified development code] stands in the present time, the county only allows the rental of residentially-zoned dwelling units on a weekly, monthly or longer basis,” County Attorney Ken Jarrard said.

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.

After some discussion, commissioners brought up having a “three strikes” policy against violating rentals.

District 4 Commissioner Cindy Mills said she would also like to see a monitoring process that doesn’t make the neighbor “to be the bad guy, to be the one that looks like they’re doing the reporting.”

“I don’t like where we’re at,” she said. “I don’t like what we’re proposing because I feel like it is too far-reaching. I think it’s too far, but I think at the same time I’m conflicted because I want to fix the problem for the neighbors that are suffering so greatly. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with, and I don’t like dealing with something for almost two years and feeling like we’re about to make a big mistake.”

Chairwoman Laura Semanson said she thought the change was “actually a weakening of our code” and felt the rentals were most appropriate in agricultural districts.

“Our code supports that residential properties are for a residential use. You can’t just put up a business in there. You can’t build a hotel in there, but you’re operating like a hotel, and you’re operating like a business,” she said, “and I think you should expect some sort of controls on that.”

Before commissioners gave their thoughts, they heard from several public speakers.

One of the most divisive issues was whether or not some of the complaints had been racially motivated.

“It was my home where all this started,” said rental-owner Kenneth Heyman. “We’re still talking about a party that happened in 2017 of some black gentlemen who rented my property. All of this flows from that. Tens of thousands of dollars have been spent.”

Semanson pointed out that the commission had been talking about the rentals since 2016 and was not “with respect to any racial issue.”

Karen Cobb, who spoke in favor of the change, said her objections had nothing to do with “the kind of people that were renting or the color of people.”

“It’s nothing about that,” she said. “The only thing wrong with these is they are strangers, not neighbors. And with the frequency of these rentals, there’s a lot of strangers, and it is totally disruptive to what we bought into as residents.”

One of the key arguments for those in favor of a change and proposed to the rentals is that they are going in residential areas, which many feel should not support a commercial use.

“I would like to state my belief that what we are addressing is about one thing and one thing only: zoning,” said Ed Stanczak, later adding: “The property owner residing in a residentially-zoned neighborhood has every right to expect that neighboring residences similarly-zoned will be used as residences and not as businesses that are disruptive to the residential character of the neighborhood. That expectation is being shattered by short-term rentals.”

Speakers in favor of the rentals said all owners were being impacted by the actions of a few bad actors and impacting them financially.

“I think that sweeping county-wide regulations are being imposed based on a very tiny fraction of disruption,” said Crystal Whedbee, who said she owned a rental property on agricultural-zoned land, “and I think that a lot of the claims being made against short-term rentals are blown out of proportion and are not consistent with my experiences.”

Some speakers opposed to the change said the new rules would impact rentals on Lake Lanier, which is one of the more popular locations in the county.