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County softens vacation rental crackdown
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The public was split on the new and more strict regulations of vacation rental homes being considered by the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Deep changes to how the county controls vacation rentals — including new limits on the number of people and parked cars allowed at a home at one time and a ban on vacation rentals in the Residential-I zone, where they’re currently allowed — are working their way through the public approval process this month. 

The first hearing took place at the commission’s Tuesday voting meeting, and the final vote is set for March 22. 

The ordinance not only tightens restrictions on vacation rentals in the county but empowers the Hall County Marshal’s Office to troll online rental sites like VRBO and AirBnb to make contact with people renting their homes without a license. Violating the code can carry a fine of up to $1,000 for repeat offenders in a single year.

Even in existing code, renters are required to get a business license and collect hotel taxes for the county, but almost no one cooperates with the regulations; there are only eight existing vacation rental licenses in the county while dozens and dozens of properties are available online.

New regulations have enjoyed support from many permanent residents around Lake Lanier, but the issue has also irritated homeowners who see their property rights being eroded. 

On Tuesday, county commissioners softened the proposed rules to allow vacation rentals in the vacation cottage zone without the approval of the Hall County Planning Commission or the Board of Commissioners. In a unanimous vote, commissioners also moved to allow owners of large homes that sleep 16 or more people and accommodate seven or more vehicles to apply for variances with the Hall County Planning Department.

“We’re trying to find a balance,” said Commission Chairman Richard Higgins, who offered the changes to the new rules. 

He noted that he’s used vacation rentals in his own travels, saying that “they’re nice and they’re convenient and it’s great, but we’ve got to respect the property owners next door to them.”

The previous version of the regulations put hard caps on numbers of people allowed in homes and parked vehicles, requiring any property over the threshold to meet commercial building code and ADA rules — rules that would require hugely expensive construction, equipment and inspections in homes.

The proposed regulations include: 

No more than seven vehicles can be parked at a vacation rental property without a variance.

Each bedroom, adjoining hallway and common area must have a working smoke detector.

Vacation rentals with an approved occupancy of 16 or more people are considered “non-regular residences” and would require an onsite inspection and compliance with commercial building codes. This limit is up from the original six people.

If a business license for a vacation rental is secured, the owner of the rental is required to pay for the county to send letters to all neighbors within 500 feet alerting them to the license.

In the first public hearing on Tuesday, the public was split on the issue. 

Amanda Swafford, who lives near Flowery Branch, said she and a group of about 10 girlfriends — a group of married women with children — get together for trips each year and often rely on vacation rentals.

“Those kind of regulations would stop us sometimes from possibly even coming to Hall County and spending our money,” Swafford said. “There’s a lot of money that we do spend, and we’re just one group of individuals.”

John Rogers, a local businessman, took a similar stance.

“This is really regulatory overkill,” Rogers said, noting that he was sympathetic to additional rules but thought the county was going too far. “You’re killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Meanwhile, lake residents Mandy Harris and Joyce Millwood laid out their horrible experiences with inconsiderate and even frightening people who rented out a neighboring home for a weekend.

Harris noted that the county should work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow more hotels and resorts around Lake Lanier “rather than putting them inside our residential communities.”

Before the end of the meeting, commission members invited feedback and said they were trying to find middle ground for property owners.

“This is my home, this is your home,” said Commissioner Scott Gibbs, who first requested the rewrite of vacation rental rules. “We’re trying to find a balance. We’re very pro-business, but we’ve got to find a balance for everybody.”

The final vote and public hearing on the changes is set for March 22.