A long-time feud dating back to 2009 between a local homeowner and Morgan County government seems to at long last be put to rest.
Last week, Christine May, who owned a house on Lake Oconee in the Grayson Pointe Drive subdivision in Buckhead, was cleared of all criminal charges relating to a legal battle over short-term rentals with Morgan County government. May, who served two days in jail in 2016 for repeatedly violating the county’s ordinance against short-term rentals, will be spared the rest of her 30-day sentence. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of Morgan County during May’s appeal case and lawsuit seeking $300,000 from the county, left May’s criminal charges up to Morgan County Superior Court Judge Allison Burleson to decide. Burleson issued an order of dismissal last week citing that before the county’s ordinance banning short-term rentals in 2010, the ordinance was too vague to prosecute May.
“Because the pre-2010 ordinance did not provide fair warning of the prohibited conduct and allowed for arbitrary enforcement, it is void for vagueness and unconstitutional under the due process clauses of the Georgia and United States Constitutions,” wrote Burleson. “Accordingly, at the time May began renting her home on a short-term basis, there was no ordinance in effect banning such rentals. It follows that May’s use of her home for short-term rentals was grandfathered, and the prohibition of this use under the 2010 ordinance does not apply to May’s property. May’s motion to dismiss is granted.”
Before Burleson’s ruling last week, May had little luck with the courts. 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 May, accused Morgan County of wrongfully denying her constitutional rights to conduct short-term rentals (vacation rentals) out of her home.
May had been fighting with Morgan County over short-term rentals for almost a decade now, which culminated in 2016 with county ordinance violations, 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 standing county ordinance. May only served a couple of days and was out on appeal over the last two years while she fought the sentence in higher courts. She also sought monetary compensation from the county in a lawsuit to no avail. 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.” Today, May has indeed sold the house and has not been awarded any financial settlement. But she will not be headed back to jail thanks to Judge Burleson’s ruling. Ironically, Burleson was the same judge who sentenced May to jail back in 2016 in the first place, siding with Morgan County on all accounts.
According to May’s attorney, Wilson DuBose, the ruling should finally put an end to the decade of back-and-forth legal battles.
“The ruling should effectively dispose of the case because any attempt to have the ruling overturned on appeal and to retry the case would subject Ms. May to double jeopardy, in violation of the Constitution,” explained DuBose. “Ms. May is, of course, pleased that she will be spared the remainder of the 30-day jail sentence that the Court had previously imposed. She had served two days after being sentenced in 2016 before being released on an appeal bond.”
County leaders were unhappy with Burleson’s ruling, but are relieved to have the matter resolved.
“Morgan County is disappointed in, and respectfully disagrees with the trial court’s recent ruling dismissing the citation against Christine May for illegally renting her house on a short-term basis in violation of the County’s ordinance,” said County Attorney Christian Henry. “However, as the County has won both of Ms. May’s lawsuits and as Ms. May sold her house and will not be renting any property in the County on a short-term basis in the future, the County believes this long-running dispute should finally end.”