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Commissioners Try to Take the Air Out of Short-Term Rentals

Some Athens homes like this one now serve exclusively as short-term rentals. Credit: airbnb

The Athens-Clarke County Commission is considering a proposal to limit short-term rentals like Airbnbs, but it wouldn’t affect the nearly 1,000 units currently available in Athens.

The commission voted last week to send regulations proposed by the Government Operations Committee, made up of five commissioners, to the Planning Commission, an advisory zoning board, for vetting.  

In multifamily zones, short-term rentals (STRs) would be treated much like bed and breakfasts, assistant county attorney Sherrie Hines told the GOC at a Nov. 21 meeting. The owner would simply need a permit to run a home business, without a lengthy review process.

In single-family zones, the restrictions would be tighter. Full-time STRs would be banned, although homeowners could occasionally rent out their primary residence, or rent out a portion, such as a basement apartment.

“This would allow full-time short-term rentals to exist; it just wouldn’t be happening in single-family neighborhoods,” GOC Chairman Tim Denson said at the commission’s Dec. 13 meeting.

Mayor Kelly Girtz assigned the issue of STRs to committee in July after hearing concerns that having too many of them was contributing to a housing shortage and affordability crisis. Residents have also complained about large “party houses” that cause noise and parking problems in neighborhoods. 

But for as long as they stay in operation, any existing STR can continue to party on. County Attorney Judd Drake and other officials told the commission that they can’t regulate existing STRs.

“If you live in Texas and can run for the Senate [in Georgia], you can grandfather an Airbnb,” Mayor Kelly Girtz quipped, referring to Herschel Walker.

The proposed regulations are based on ordinances in Atlanta and Glynn County, a popular vacation spot on the Georgia coast. 

Hines said “the key crux” of the challenges local governments face comes from Georgia Code Title 36, which states, “in no event may a local government require the registration of residential rental property.” Because the code was written in 2003, Hines said it was likely not written with STRs in mind.

Hines said Atlanta’s ordinance on regulating and taxing STRs requires that the owner of an STR must register their primary residence regardless of whether it is used as an STR, and that there is a stipulation that only one other property may be used. The STR owner must also be a permanent resident of Atlanta, Hines said. 

In Glynn County, Hines said owners are not required to register. However, STRs are subject to taxation as determined by the local government. STRs are already taxed by ACC, but another part of the proposed ordinance involves hiring a third-party vendor to track STRs and assist with revenue collection and code enforcement.

If implemented, the $61,673 program would include address identification, compliance monitoring, permitting and registration, tax collection and consulting services for the ACC government, as well as a 24/7 hotline enabling communication among the local government, law enforcement and property owners should issues arise.

“It takes a big burden off code enforcement and the police department because it provides this really seemingly excellent alternative resolve for a lot of this conflict,” Hines said, “and it also gives neighbors a chance to feel heard.”

Commissioners initially considered limiting the number of STRs. According to ACC Chief Information Officer Travis Cooper, as of September there were 938 STRs in Athens-Clarke County. Limiting the number of STRs would enable the local government to streamline tax collection and oversee STRs in the area, he told the GOC.

“Whatever we do here, whichever method we go, the angle here has to be putting some kind of cap on the number of short-term rentals we have,” Denson said at a Sept. 19 meeting. 

Commissioner Melissa Link had the idea of treating STRs like hotels in multi-family zones. “I feel like that would be the most straightforward, easiest way to deal with this,” Link said. “Zoning is defensible, and that is clearly a charge of the local government.”

A cap on the number of STRs wasn’t included in the final proposed ordinance, but the Planning Commission could restore it before sending a recommended version back to the county commission.