By Tia Lynn Ivey
Morgan County lost an appeal case that went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court last week. Morgan County leaders had hoped the court would uphold the criminal charges imposed upon Christine May, a former Buckhead homeowner, when she repeatedly rented her house out for short-term rentals after the county passed an ordinance forbidding short-term rentals. May, who is in her late seventies, served two days of a 30-day sentence issued in 2016, has been fighting the criminal misdemeanor charges in the courts for years. The long-time feud dates back to 2009 between May and Morgan County government, when Morgan County cracked down on homeowners renting out their properties short-term to vacationers through popular sites like Airbnb.com.
“I’m obviously disappointed in the Supreme Court’s opinion,” said Christian Henry, county attorney. “This ruling is directly contradictory to previous rulings by the Court of Appeals (three times), the Supreme Court (when it rejected May’s appeal on this issue), and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit…Hopefully, this finally ends this long-running matter.”
According to Henry, since May no longer owns a home in Morgan County and the court only issued a ruling for May individually, that the case should have no broader effect on Morgan County’s short-term rental ordinance.
“The Court only held that Ms. May had a grandfathered right to rent her house on a short-term basis,” explained Henry. “It did not hold that anyone else has such a right, nor did it hold that the County’s “new” (post-2010) ordinance restricting short-term rentals is in any way invalid. As such, this ruling has no implications for short-term rentals on any properties in the county, and only applies to Ms. May.”
The Georgia Supreme Court upheld Morgan County Superior Judge Allison Burleson’s dismissal of May’s criminal charges in 2018. 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.
May had been fighting with Morgan County over short-term rentals for almost a decade, 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 the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld Judge Burleson’s dismissal of May’s criminal charges. 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.