Morgan County wins short-term rental appeal

Tia Lynn Ivey News

A federal court ruled in favor of Morgan County concerning a lawsuit over short-term rentals that landed a local homeowner in jail last year.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals – a court only lower than the Supreme Court – upheld previous court rulings that Morgan County government did not establish an unconstitutional short-term rental ordinance. The suit, filed by Christine May, accused Morgan County of wrongfully denying her constitutional rights to conduct short-term rentals (vacation rentals) out of her home.

“It’s another victory,” said Christian Henry, county attorney. “The federal court rejected her lawsuit and upheld the state court’s ruling…I am pleased that the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with us, that they saw through her arguments and agreed with us.”

May has been fighting with Morgan County over short-term rentals for the last several years, incurring county ordinance violations and a 30-day jail sentence, six months probation, and a $500 fine for continuing to conduct short-term rentals out of her home in repeated violation of a county ordinance. May only served a couple of days.

At that time, May had been battling Morgan County government for more than five years over conducting short-term rentals out of her Lake Oconee house on Grayson Pointe Drive in Buckhead that she had custom built in 2007 and began renting out in 2008. However, a 2010 vote by the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) prohibited all residential rentals of less than 30 days in all but one zoning district in Morgan County. The county issued May with a criminal citation after code enforcement officer J. Pritchett determined May continued to use the property for short-term rentals after seven or eight visits. The county also received complaints from neighbors and found the property listed on vacation rental website sites such as VRBO.com and Airbnb.com for rental timeslots as short as a one-night stay.

May maintained that she never broke the law, but worked around the law to continue renting legally. May testified that she only rented her home out for 30 days at a time, as the county ordinance stipulated while she sought legal actions in the meantime. She also argued that the county’s ordinance is unconstitutional and that she is entitled to “grandfathered rights” to continue to conduct short-term rentals out of her home on Lake Oconee since she began renting it out a few years before the county’s ordinance came into effect.

Morgan County Superior Court Judge Allison Burleson sided with Morgan County and sentenced May to serve time and pay a fine in 2016. But May remained undeterred in her zeal to continue fighting the county over this matter in court, filing an appeal and suing the county for $300,000. “If I cannot rent my house, I will be forced to sell my dream house and that will be a punishment far greater than any punishment this court could impose on me,” she said in 2016. “It will break my heart to sell my dream house that has taken me a lifetime of work to build.”

May could not be reached for comment as to whether or not she will attempt to take her case to the Supreme Court.

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