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Commissioners hear from public about short-term rental ordinance
FCN Forsyth County Administration Building

At a regular meeting on Thursday, May 20, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners continued to hammer out the details regarding a short-term rental ordinance.

Under the ordinance, residents would have to abide by new regulations and receive a permit from the county before renting their homes.

In 2019, the board voted to approve only agriculturally zoned properties to operate short-term rentals with a conditional-use permit, or CUP.

The ordinance discussed on Tuesday would not take away from districts already zoned for short-term rentals or ones that have a CUP, but it would mean getting an additional permit similar to an alcohol or business license.

The board brought this issue back to the table after Chairwoman Cindy Jones Mills attended a planning commission meeting in late February. At the meeting, planning commissioners were hesitant to recommend approval for a CUP for short-term rentals in northwest Forsyth because of concerns and complaints from neighbors.

At the meeting on Tuesday, Earl Groover, a resident who asked for a conditional-use permit in February, spoke in favor of the short-term rental ordinance, saying he was “85% in favor of the ordinance as written.”

Groover had changes he would like to see regarding the one-hour response time and concerns about false accusations against property owners.

He said that he understood the need for rapid response, but he was worried about issues like traffic that might prevent an owner or responsible party from being onsite within an hour.

Groover also said that false accusations could “lead to problems for the county, for the owner, for the operator [and] for the occupant,” and he asked that the county consider adding fees or a fine for anyone caught making false accusations.

There were speakers who spoke in opposition to the ordinance including short-term rental operator Kenneth Heyman who said his home has been rented “non-stop” all year long.

“The intention of the county is not to facilitate your business,” Heyman said. “The intention of the county is to destroy your business.”

Heyman said that “no business owner could do” what was being asked of short-term rental operators in the ordinance.

He said that he believed that what the board was doing was “illegal” and asked commissioners to “take a step back” from the issue.

Jamie Mertz, president of 400 North Association of Realtors, also spoke in opposition to the ordinance, saying that she and her organization did not support provisions for the county and health department to do inspections of houses as per the Fourth Amendment.

Mertz echoed Groovers concerned about the one-hour response time that owners would be held to if an issue on the rented property should arise.

During the discussion, District 5 Commissioner Laura Semanson said she thought “a lot of people [were] misunderstanding what [was] happening,” and that this issue was “bothersome” to her because she felt that the regulations being proposed were “mutually agreeable or mutually disagreeable” terms created in “a sit-down [meeting] with the [short-term rental] community.”

“We are not revisiting the land-use portion of this,” Semanson said. “We’re simply looking to put in place the regulations [and] the operational requirements.

“It seems like a lot of people are… more concerned about expanding the availability of [short-term rentals] in the community, but they’re not wanting to be held to any standards,” she said. “If the areas that we have determined are appropriate for this aren’t even going to abide by certain standards, I just don’t see how it ever goes any further for the folks who are pushing for something more.”

Mills reiterated that the proposed ordinance was just a “first draft,” and that modifications could be made to regulations about inspections or response time. Semanson agreed that there were “tweaking points” that had caught her eye and ear after hearing the public speakers

District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent did not believe that the health department needed to do inspections of rentals because he did not think it was “done anywhere around the country.”

“[Short-term rentals are] somewhat self-regulating,” Levent said. “Each person that comes and goes … they grade you. They rate your home, and if you don’t keep it up to par, it’s written down all over your [review] and before long, [VRBO and Airbnb] will actually pull you off the [website].”

Levent said he felt the proposed regulations were “onerous” and that he wouldn’t vote for it as presented.

“[The ordinance] needs to be reasonable,” Levent said. “It needs to protect the neighbors, but it doesn’t need to be so onerous that it gives the appearance … that you’re doing it just to completely shut [short-term rentals] out.”

He said he believed the CUP on agriculturally-zoned land “kind of” shut out short-term rentals, “probably [knocking] out 95% of the properties on the lake because they’re not [agricultural districts].”

However, Levent said that some neighbors to short-term rental properties have been “put out by bad actors” in the past, but he thought that the county had taken a “scorched-earth approach to begin with.”

Levent had specific concerns regarding the one-hour response time, saying it might be difficult for someone to arrive on site within an hour of a problem being reported. Semanson agreed and said that there was a difference between being able to be available for a call versus being able to be onsite in person.

Addressing the concern from Mertz about the county having renters’ information, Mills said she thought there was “some merit” to having names of renters and license plate numbers, “because the person that is responsible is the person that owns the house,” Mills said.

Molly Esswein, representing County Attorney Ken Jarrard’s office, said that under the ordinance, anyone was able to have a citation issued.

“If… we had to provide evidence to prove that a violation was occurring and we needed to cite the individual who was there or we needed them as a witness and needed to subpoena them, that’s a way of having their contact information so that we can actually make the case that we need if we actually need to make it,” Esswein said.

Regarding false accusations, Mills said she believed there needed to be a way to combat that issue. Esswein said that “just because someone makes a complaint doesn’t mean that [the operator is] going to have their license revoked.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard reminded commissioners that the county’s code enforcement conducts investigations whenever a complaint is made and that they are “more about compliance than prosecution.” Semanson agreed and said that people did not need to hire attorneys for magistrate court.

Jarrard said the county’s code enforcement did not require complainants to sign statements, and Levent said that he believed having complainants sign something could be beneficial to “protect against false statements.”

Commissioners and the county attorney made notes of changes they would like to see, and Jarrard said that the issue will be brought back again in June for further consideration and another public hearing.