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Gainesville may change short-term rental rules. Should city do more to regulate Airbnbs, VRBOs?
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The Ark on Lake Lanier is a large home renovated for short-term rental use in Hall County for those looking for luxury accommodations on Lake Lanier. - photo by Scott Rogers

Search a site like Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll see plenty of short-term rental options in Gainesville.

Though many of them operate illegally, city officials are considering a change to allow short-term rentals in sections of the city zoned residential-office and to more clearly define such properties. Residential-office is the city’s smallest zoning designation, which captures part of Green Street and a few other parcels. 

The change has some Gainesville residents calling for a deeper look at how short-term rental properties are regulated.

Gainesville City Council is set to vote Tuesday, March 1, on the matter.

Short-term rentals are currently allowed in commercial zoning districts for stays of 15 days or less but are defined as “lodging services.” The ordinance change would clean up the definition to call these properties “short-term rentals” and specify that Airbnb and VRBO properties are included.

At the Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board meeting on Feb. 8 where the ordinance was first discussed, some residents said they were concerned about short-term rentals being allowed in residential neighborhoods. Some residents see this ordinance change as an opportunity to ask the city to further investigate its ordinances regarding short-term rentals.

Since the last meeting, more than 40 Gainesville residents met to form the “R1 Preservation Group,” and members plan to ask the city to further protect residential subdivisions from rental properties they see as harmful to their communities. 

Bob Owen, one of the members of the recently formed group, said they would like the city to enforce a 30-day rental minimum, instead of 15 days, for R-1 zoning districts, which are primarily low- to moderate-density, single-family residential subdivisions.

“The concern would be the destruction of the fabric of the neighborhood,” Owen said. “I live in a neighborhood and I know all my neighbors. … to have a house that’s a hotel and having people unknown, strangers … coming into a home every weekend next door, two houses down — I just think it would be a terrible thing for the neighborhood.”

But many people already operate Airbnbs, VRBOs and other short-term rental properties in residential areas of the city, as shown in searches on short-term rental websites. For now, the city has taken the approach of reacting when complaints are filed, because, city officials said, it does not have the manpower to enforce the codes more proactively. 

“We’re not going door to door and looking for short-term rentals,” said Rusty Ligon, the city’s community and economic development director. “We’re not scouring websites trying to find these. As we are made aware of these, … we’ll address them as appropriate.”

Community and Economic Development Deputy Director Matt Tate said there were a couple of recent instances where the city had to write letters to short-term rental owners who were managing properties in residential areas. One property owner planned to appeal the notice but withdrew his appeal before the Planning and Appeals Board would have taken action on Feb. 8.

“We find out there’s a short-term rental, we make a phone call or we’ll visit the site,” Tate said. “We’ve been able to handle most of these verbally and have had really no issues. What we’re finding out here more recently is how many more there seem to be in certain areas of our city.” 

Hall County moved in 2019 to allow short-term rentals in all zoning districts as long as owners applied for business licenses. But Gainesville has continued to allow these businesses in only commercial areas.

CJ Greene manages a few Airbnb properties in the area, including locations in Gainesville that may be illegal under current ordinances. Greene said short-term rentals are often better maintained than long-term rental properties, which are allowed in residential zoning districts. 

“I think there needs to be a study done between long-term and short-term (rentals), because there’s a vast difference in how long-term is maintained and short-term,” Greene said. “There’s a lot of vetting that goes into who stays there and I think it would be very wise for the city and the council to invest in that kind of study. … A lot of the short-term rentals have to be really well-maintained and kept or else people aren’t going to rent them.”

Airbnb allows property managers to vet guests, Greene said, leading to better outcomes for neighbors near her properties. 

Gainesville is becoming more of a tourist city, said Leslie White, who owns Resource Property Management in Gainesville. Airbnbs are a necessary part of its growth, she said. 

City Manager Bryan Lackey said at the city council’s most recent work session Thursday, Feb. 24, that the city would look further into the issue, but it was waiting on how state laws might shake out.  

“When we do (look into it) we really want to do it right,” City Councilman Zack Thompson told The Times. “We want to look at other communities, municipalities’ successes with it, because we don’t want to do it multiple times.”