By Tia Lynn Ivey
A short-term rental controversy has become a long-term debacle for Morgan County.
Christine May, a former Morgan County homeowner, filed a federal lawsuit against Morgan County last week, stemming from a near decade-long dispute over short-term rentals out of her lake house in Buckhead, Georgia. The eight-year legal battle escalated to the point of May, a woman in her 70s, being charged with a criminal misdemeanor and sentenced to 30 days in jail for continuing to use her house as a vacation rental property. She served two days in jail and continued petitioning the courts over the case.
“This has been a nightmare – the worst experience in my life,” said May. “I am a law-abiding senior citizen who somehow mustered up the courage to stand-up against the County’s many attempts to intimidate and to fight for what I so strongly believed was right and lawful. I was vindicated by the Georgia Supreme Court, and now I seek compensation for what Morgan County put me through.”
Legal counsel accuses Morgan County of “malicious prosecution” and unrelentingly persecuting May.
“Morgan County’s crusade against Christine May, jailing her for doing nothing more than renting her home, came crashing down when the Georgia Supreme Court honored her constitutional rights. Now, it is time for her to be compensated for years of hell and the loss of her dream retirement home,” said Gerry Weber, counsel for May along with Craig Goodmark. “Jailing a citizen for their vacation rentals is beyond the pale. Ms. May has suffered years of uncertainty, humiliation and emotional pain as a result of the County’s wrongheaded decisions.”
May is seeking nearly $1.5 million in compensatory damages from Morgan County, including loss rental income, forced sale of her house, all attorney and legal fees, and loss of liberty, emotional distress and pain and suffering.
The case originally centered around Morgan County’s 2010 ordinance, which explicitly forbade short-term rentals in May’s district, and whether or not May retained “grandfathered rights” to continue conducting short-term rentals.
“Christine May built a retirement and vacation home for herself and her family in Morgan County, Georgia. To help pay for her mortgage and expenses, in 2008, she began renting her house to others for typically week-long rentals through VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). At the time, Morgan County’s zoning ordinance did not restrict vacation rentals,” explained Weber.. “In October 2010, Morgan County amended its zoning ordinance to prohibit most short terms rentals, which were defined as ‘fewer than 30 consecutive days.’ May continued to rent her home for shorter periods because she correctly believed that she was grandfathered, and that the new ordinance did not apply to her. In August 2011, Morgan County initiated a criminal prosecution against May for violation of the amended ordinance. May was even strip searched and jailed for simply renting her property for vacation stays. An eight year legal battle culminated in an unanimous win before the Georgia Supreme Court which agreed that she was grandfathered and that her criminal prosecution was unlawful, and in Morgan County v. May, 824 S.E. 2d 365 (Ga. 2019), the Court unanimously held: “that the County’s old zoning ordinance was unconstitutionally vague as applied to seven-night rentals of May’s property…. May’s criminal citation for violating the amended ordinance was properly dismissed.”
Morgan County lost the appeal case that went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court in February. Morgan County leaders had hoped the court would uphold the criminal charges imposed upon May, who now resides in New Jersey, when she repeatedly rented her house out for short-term rentals after the county passed an ordinance forbidding short-term rentals.
“I’m obviously disappointed in the Supreme Court’s opinion,” said Christian Henry, county attorney, back in February. “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.”
While Morgan County’s short-term rental ordinance may be safe, whether or not the county will be forced to pay May damages with a hefty price tag is yet to be determined.
“This suit lacks any merit,” said Henry, who declined to comment further on the case.
Weber argues that May’s gains in court could not save her lake house and she is due compensation.
“Christine May’s victory came too late as it was after she was eventually forced financially to sell her property without the needed rental income to support it. She has incurred huge financial losses and years of tremendous emotional and psychological distress. Now, Christine May is fighting back with a federal lawsuit for violation of her constitutional rights in prosecuting and jailing her under an unconstitutionally applied ordinance,” said Weber.
The lawsuit was filed in the United Stats District Court Middle District of Georgia Athens Division.