Commissioners draft plan to restrict short-term rentals

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Just as the dust had settled on Forsyth County’s short-term rental ordinance, the issue is being kicked up again.

The county is considering changes to the ordinance that would add another permit layer to those seeking to rent out residential space for fewer than 30 days, a practice popularized by rental websites like VRBO and Airbnb. The last update to the ordinance passed in 2019.

With its access to Lake Lanier, its proximity to Ga. 400, shopping districts and north Metro Atlanta, Forsyth County had become a popular site for these properties. County officials estimated some 250 short-term rental homes/rooms were in operation when they began considering the regulations.

The 2019 update to the county’s Unified Development Code, which commissioners passed 3-2, banned short-term rentals on properties zoned residential. It limited short-term rentals to properties zoned agricultural or agricultural-residential, which are typically larger lots. It also required the owners of those homes to obtain a conditional use permit.

The issue, batted about for two years, proved contentious.

Proponents of the stricter regulations argued short-term rentals were acting as businesses and should not be allowed to operate in residential areas and neighborhoods. There were also complaints from neighbors of noise, parking, traffic and unruly behavior.

Opponents of the revised ordinance condemned the regulation as government overreach. They also contended groups of short-term rental property owners could be self-regulating.

The revision sparked two lawsuits. A state lawsuit was dismissed by the plaintiffs, while a federal lawsuit remains pending and is now on appeal before the 11th Circuit following an order of dismissal.

The ordinance took effect in January 2020, but now the county is considering tightening the reins. Officials are tossing around the idea of requiring a specific short-term rental permit in addition to the conditional use permit, which primarily focuses on land use.

County Attorney Ken Jarrard suggested the short-term rental permit was intended when the county originally proposed regulations on the properties.

“As at least envisioned at one moment in time in the past, I’m thinking probably 2017 and 2018, the short-term rental ordinance looked a little different than what it actually manifested itself into the UDC today,” Jarrard said. “It was more of a permitting scheme.”

With the county beginning to field requests for conditional use permits, officials decided to review the possibility of implementing the specific short-term rental permits in addition to the land-use permit to create more “enforceable” regulations. The proposed rules include parking limitations, septic regulations, noise constraints, posted notice requirements and a mandate that renters sign an agreement stating they understand these stipulations.

Other requirements discussed include setting a minimum six-day rental period and that property owners may only rent one bedroom or the entire property at a time, which could prevent a boarding house situation, commissioner Laura Semanson said.

The stipulations discussed by Jarrard at the March 23 work session were previously presented but never signed into law.

“There was, by no means, unanimity among either the potential regulated parties or the particular folks who live near regulated parties, that this was a perfect fit,” Jarrard said. “And ultimately, this did not become law, as you know. This is…where we ended.”

Commissioners charged Jarrard and county staff to further explore the regulations and to propose changes to the county’s Unified Development Code that would include the short-term rental permit requirement.

Any changes will then go back before the Board of Commissioners for review.

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