After a significant paring down, new regulations for vacation rentals were approved by the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.
The vote stood 4-1, with Commissioner Jeff Stowe the lone dissenter after about an hour of debate over the proposed regulations. Commissioners softened much of the new rules, but added a two-night minimum to permitted rentals and set the groundwork for a complaint system to report homes.
After the meeting, Stowe said he agreed with 90 percent of the regulations’ content but voted against them because he believed the extensively revised document needed another vetting from the public before a final vote. That’s also why he didn’t comment on the rules during the meeting.
The revised regulations were handed out at the meeting. Planning Director Srikanth Yamala said that even though the regulations are softened from their initial version — the code rewrite dropped from 16 pages to 12 and no longer includes a cap on parked cars on a property and allows vacation rentals in the Vacation-Cottage, Agricultural Residential-III, Agricultural Residential IV and Residential-I zones with certain restrictions — they’re substantially different than what’s on the books already.
The proposed regulations created a property rights battle between the two sides of the issue at the meeting: Whose rights win out when the fight is between the homeowner who wants to monetize unused space and time in their home and the neighbor who paid good money for his or her home expecting some peace and quiet?
Many advocates of allowing vacation rentals said it’s not a binary choice, that most short-term rentals have existed alongside full-time residents on Lake Lanier without problems. However, opponents of short-term rentals came armed with stories of abuse from renters in neighboring homes, from burly bouncers stationed at the end of residential streets demanding “tickets” from people trying to get down their own streets to 75-person parties celebrating a 21st birthday one house over.
Sheri Millwood, a Realtor and Oakwood community leader, distilled the case of those in favor of the new rules when she said lake residents pay a premium to live there and they should not have to step into their backyards fearful of who might be staying in the house next door or what they might do.
“People are scared to death,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mark Yarbrough said he operates a rental home in Hall County and in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
“That’s a community that has embraced the short-term rental market very effectively,” Yarbrough said of Hilton Head, adding that neighborhoods that allow rentals have homes worth about $100,000 more than those who don’t.
Yarbrough, who lives on Duckett Mill Road, also noted that he earned $60,000 in 2017 on his Hilton Head rental, with portions going to city and state government through taxes.
Both sides agree the county has problem homes, and the regulations approved on Thursday set fines for violations of the county rules, increasing from $250 for an initial violation to $1,000 for a third violation in the same year and the loss of the property owner’s business license.
Many of the speakers against vacation rentals urged the commission to bump up enforcement of even the county’s existing regulations — which is what initially led to the boiling over of frustration with vacation rentals.
“The biggest point I think of all of this is you’re going to have people who are going to get a business license and be in compliance and those that are not,” said Commissioner Billy Powell. “No matter how many regulations there are, if we don’t know it’s going on we can’t enforce it. That’s why we have beefed up the complaint section in this new ordinance.”
In the previous code, the county had no real way to monitor the vacation rental market and force property owners to comply with the code. Now that the commission has taken a stance on the issue, the Hall County Marshal’s Office, Hall County Sheriff’s Office and its licensing department will coordinate on any complaints they receive about a rental, said County Administrator Jock Connell after the meeting.
Connell said it will be a matter of days until the county has set up a system to keep track of complaints made to all of those offices, which will allow the county to not only follow problem houses but identify which homes are being rented without a business license.
Commissioner Scott Gibbs, who kicked off the vacation rental debate late last year, said the new regulations were not perfect but a place to start.
“This is a brand-new industry in the world of government,” he said, noting that when he took office in 2011 the county had many fewer homes being rented.