How Athens-Clarke County Can Get Rid of Existing Short-Term Rentals

Short-term rentals like this one in the River Oaks neighborhood can host dozens of vacationers at a time. Credit: Joseph Powell

At a Sept. 19 meeting, the Athens-Clarke County Commission imposed a temporary moratorium on new short-term rentals (STRs). 

During public comment, residents of residential single-family (RS) neighborhoods related vividly how their neighborhoods have been disrupted by STRs. Those accounts reflect an abject policy and operational failure by our government that’s ongoing, notwithstanding action finally to address the issue. The cost of this failure has fallen disproportionately on residents of our RS neighborhoods. Our zoning code says, “The purpose of the RS district is to stabilize and protect the owner occupied housing characteristics of the district and to promote and encourage a suitable environment for family life.” Having thrown those neighborhoods under the bus, the commission owes them regulations that to the greatest possible extent fulfill the stated purpose of the RS zones. Since I got my law degree from Google University, my only qualification for commenting here is living in the malign shadow of an STR that’s wildly out of place in my neighborhood. 

I don’t care about owners in the RS zones renting out a room or two to a few visitors for short stays. There are a couple of those in my neighborhood. They’re invisible and inaudible. Nor do I care about STRs outside RS zones. I have close family operating one in a commercial-office zone. I wish them every success. 

What makes a travesty of RS zoning is properties like the two story, 4,100 square-foot (4,600 square feet after modifications), six-bedroom home on my street that’s now a whole-house, full-time, purely commercial STR. It offers lodging to a maximum of 30 guests spread out among 21–33 beds depending on how you count, including Yogibos (I had to look that up), futons and air mattresses. It’s home to absolutely nobody. Neither its owner nor its “host” even lives in Athens, let alone in the house. 

I also have it on the authority of the state fire marshal that the property falls under the State Minimum Fire Safety Code, which both state law and local ordinance require our government to enforce. But when I complained to our fire department about what to all appearances is a flagrant fire code violation, my complaint got sucked into the black hole of the county attorney’s office, where it remains. 

The county’s STR policy is basically no policy. According to the ACC Planning Department, the only property use allowed “by right” in RS zones is single-family residences. But, our zoning code is silent regarding STRs, neither permitting nor prohibiting them. So, they can operate anywhere in the county, including RS neighborhoods, without any affirmative government action, depriving the by-right residents of their right to fair notice and any process for voicing timely objections. 

Our officials can’t claim that they woke up one morning and discovered to their shock and horror that absentee investors had converted a sizable chunk of our housing stock into STR cash cows. Commissioner Melissa Link pointed out that the commission took up this problem four or five years ago but never did anything about it. It defies belief that nobody saw this coming. 

Nor can the government argue that, as the state’s smallest county with much of its property tax-exempt, we must monetize visitors so as not to overburden our property owners. That rationale can’t be taken seriously because, although STRs are liable for the county’s hotel/motel tax, absent an effective enforcement regime, STR operators regard it as optional, like a charitable contribution.  

So what is it fair for beleaguered residents of RS zones to expect of regulations for existing STRs? When I heard commissioners and staff talking about “grandfathering” existing STRs, I was afraid that STRs currently operating in RS zones would get a pass on regulations that prohibited or significantly restricted new STRs in those neighborhoods. But when I geeked out about this, I discovered that while there is “grandfathering” language in our ordinances, there are also code sections that could provide serious relief for RS residents. (I’ll try to explain this as I would have to my mother of blessed memory.)   

I don’t know what regulations the commission will ultimately adopt. But there seems to be widespread sentiment for permitting only owner-occupied STRs in RS neighborhoods. If that happens, then the de facto hotel on my street will be a non-conforming use. The thrust of our current zoning regulations is to convert non-conforming to conforming uses. 

Touring our zoning regulations, I found two ways for the county to restore STR-afflicted RS neighborhoods to something like their STR-free condition. One is to sunset non-conforming properties. That’s what happened when the county adopted the current definition of a “family” in its RS regulations. It gave non-conforming properties a year to comply, failing which they’d no longer be non-conforming but illegal. It’s a fair question why non-conforming STRs can’t be treated the same way. 

The other relevant code section I found required non-conforming properties to conform “where feasible” (I don’t know when it wouldn’t be feasible) by applying for and receiving special use permits that shall (not optional) impose conditions on special use properties aimed at mitigating their impact on the “by right” residents of the neighborhoods in question. To accomplish that, the code gives the county the authority to regulate and limit the use of existing STRs in RS zones. If the county declines to do that, it’ll owe an explanation to every by-right resident of an RS zone who’s ever called the police in the wee hours of the morning about the raucous STR next door.   

Of course, commissioners and staff know all this. I’m putting it out here so they’ll know that we know, as we advocate to preserve our neighborhoods.