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Commissioners continue to discuss possible permitting system for short-term rentals
FCN Forsyth County Administration Building

Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard presented the county’s current regulations and ordinances for short-term rentals to the Board of Commissioners during its work session on Tuesday, March 23.

He said the regulation that had been discussed around 2017-18 but had never been made permanent in the county due to “lack of unanimity.”

Jarrard said the proposed permitting recognized the owner of the property, the person renting the property and a local control person for absentee landlords. All people renting a short-term rental had to be 18 or older and considered responsible to sign an acknowledgment and agreement of the county’s short-term rental rules.

“This contemplated a fairly healthy contract between the renting party and the … person that actually rented the [short-term rentals],” said Jarrard.

Two permits would be required for property owners: a business license and a separate short-term rental permit. The proposed permit would be able to be revoked and would require a $250 application fee and a $100 renewal fee each year.

He said the county also wanted to have accommodations for short-term rentals serviced by sewer versus those on septic. The county had regulations for parking as well as a “firm handle” on noise and a noise code.

Short-term rental properties, such as those offered by websites like Airbnb or VRBO, also had to have a notice posted with the name of the property owner and “transient information and key elements” that a renter would need, such as the number for trash service pick-up, fire, police, etc.

Jarrard said the county had a rule that short-term rental guests had to stay a minimum of six nights and seven days and that property owners had to advertise that code on social media.

“We went to great lengths to say that if you advertise for anything over than six nights and seven days … in a court of law it is assumed that you were attempting to violate our code,” Jarrard said. “That was obviously to try to get a handle on sort of a filtration process.”

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent said he thought the county had gotten close at one time to getting the permitting process complete and agreed upon by residents of the county.

“Too bad this sat on the shelf for so long, but it got very close to where everybody agreed to it,” Levent said. “There might’ve been one or two people that wouldn’t agree to anything.”

“We massaged this for a very long time, and there was considerable input from both sides of the argument,” District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said.

When the permitting was taken to public hearing, “one side of the argument” opposed to the rules and regulations.

“When you get to negotiate a conclusion, usually both parties are equally unhappy with the outcome, but everybody had agreed to move forward with this until we actually got to public hearing,” Semanson said. “[That’s when] one side steadfastly dug their heels in and disavowed it and said not only were they not OK with these regulations, they were not OK with any regulations. And … that somewhat forced the hand of the decision that was made.”

Semanson lauded the good work that had been done previously and said that she could see some good applications for short-term rentals. She also noted that there were revisions to the early rules that the board would likely want to look at and revise, particularly the regulations pertaining to length of stay.

Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills asked Jarrard about possibly modifying the code to include a hotel/motel tax for the rentals, if the state adopts it, and was concerned about property owners that might want to rent by the bedroom instead of the whole property. Jarrard said the board could implement a hotel/motel tax if state lawmakers approve the change.

“The idea that someone becomes a de facto boarding house because they’ve got a four-bedroom house and they let people come and go from each bedroom, that’s not a good situation,” Semanson said.

Commissioners tasked Jarrard to work on “cleaning up” and “bringing harmony” between the county’s Unified Development Code and the proposed permitting system. The item will return to a future work session and then be sent to a public hearing.

Changing the county’s current rules for such rentals, which requires a conditional-use permit for the property, has recently been discussed by commissioners.

At a recent work session, Mills expressed interest in a standalone permit, like a business license, for those wanting to apply for short-term rentals. Jarrard said adding a permitting process would take some “retooling” of the CUP conditions, but it could be done.

“[The permitting process] sets in motion the right process for people to apply, it gives us the punitive measures that we need to take care of the bad actors, of which there might be few and far between,” said District 2 Commissioner Alfred John. “If we apply this permitting process now, it gives greater weight to enforcement on the other side as well, so I think we should follow through with this process.”

For years, commissioners have wrestled with how best to strike a balance between owners of short-term rental properties and their neighbors.

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.

In June 2020, commissioners approved the county’s first permit to operate a short-term rental after rules requiring a CUP were approved in 2019.

Under those rules, short-term rentals are defined 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 include 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.