By Tia Lynn Ivey
Companies like Airbnb have revolutionized the lodging industry as millions of people opt to rent out their own bedrooms, in-law suites, or entire houses to tourists and vacationers for some extra cash. But short-term vacation rentals continue to be a source of controversy, with heated opposition from established lodging businesses, neighboring property owners, and local governments attempting to regulate the latest trend in today’s “sharing economy.”
A new state bill making its way through the Georgia House of Representatives is aiming to expand short-term rental rights by stripping power from local governments to prohibit them.
Morgan County officials are opposing House Bill 523 which, if passed, would render the county’s strict short-term rental ordinance null and void. The county currently bans all short-term rentals in every zoning district except in Agricultural Residential 3, and Lake Residential 3. Even in those districts, short-term rentals are only allowed as a conditional use, which means all short-term renters must go before the Morgan County Board of Commissioners to get approval before they can conduct short-term rentals out of their residence. Although, Madison, Rutledge, Bostwick and Buckhead do not have specific short-term rental ordinances, since it is not listed as a permitted use, short-term rentals are also prohibited.
“If this new bill passes, we would not be able to prohibit short-term rentals at all anywhere in the county,” said County Manager Adam Mestres.
County officials plan to press State Representative Dave Belton, and if necessary State Senator Burt Jones, to oppose the bill.
House Bill 523 was proposed in 2019, but died in committee. This legislative session the bill reemerged and has now passed the House committee. If the State House votes to approve the bill, it will go to the State Senate, where the bill will have to make it through more committee reviews before voted on for final approval.
Officials from Morgan and City of Madison believe the bill is an erosion of local control and goes against the long-honored Georgia tradition of “home-rule.”
“We maintain the general position that any bill that is going to preempt local jurisdictions from being able to govern is a matter of bad policy,” said Mestres. “This bill would prevent us from regulating short-term rentals and take away our ability to decide what is best for our own community.”
“We want to keep control of our local ordinances,” said County Planner Tara Cooner. “This new bill would create a free-for-all.”
City Planning Director Monica Callahan worries that the bill would take away property owners protections, arguing that no one could ever buy a house without the risk of one of their neighbor’s houses functioning as a hotel with new people coming in and out every few days.
“Where are the protections for any residential investor? There are none,” said Callahan.
Callahan also noted that local hoteliers and bed and breakfast establishments view short-term vacation rentals as competition that would threaten the local hospitality industry.
The only caveat House Bill 523 includes to regulate short-term rentals is if private housing association and neighborhoods have covenants the ban short-term rentals.
“If there’s a covenant already in place, then the county can enforce that,” said Mestres. “The problem is, most of our neighborhoods were established long before short-term rentals like this were even around, so I doubt have specific prohibitions against them.”
Mestres urges citizens concerned about the potential blanket allowance of short-term vacation rentals to contact their state representatives.
“It could still change,” said Mestres. “It has to go through a vote and more committees in the Senate. People need to let their representatives know how they feel about this bill. We remain firm in our position that it is best for Morgan County, and other local governments, to maintain local control.”