Laura Bell was in her home on Lake Lanier on an early summer night; it was 2 a.m., and she was listening to thundering bass and fast beats.
Not by choice.
The empty nester and her husband, Greg Bell, bought their home across from the Gainesville Marina on the lake in 2014, hoping to relocate from Loganville and enjoy the lake full-time. They moved in at the end of December.
“It was wintertime and we didn’t really know what was going on,” Laura Bell said of the vacant home next door. “In the meantime, we get to know the neighbor across the street and she starts saying, ‘Wait until the renters start coming,’
“And I’m like, ‘What? What? What did you say?’”
The Bells had moved in next to a vacation rental — when done right, a quiet boon to homeowners looking to make a little money from their homes, and when done wrong, a major irritant to neighbors.
It’s the latter group that’s caught the eye of Hall County government, which in December laid down a moratorium on any new vacation rental licenses until April while its planning staff devises new ways to regulate vacation rentals.
While the regulations are taking shape, they won’t be released to the public until Feb. 9. One thing that won’t come out of the new regulations: Increased enforcement of unlicensed vacation rentals.
With AirBnb, VRBO and other rental sites growing increasingly popular, Hall County is trying to tamp down a tide of rentals swelling around the county, or at least to make it a little more orderly.
Almost half of the homeowners around the lake don’t live there full time. Before the rise of online vacation rentals, those homes sat vacant when owners were out of town or they were used by long-term renters.
Things have changed for the lake in the past several years, and those changes are putting more money in homeowner’s pockets — sometimes at the expense of their neighbors’ peace of mind.
“People come to the lake to party. That’s what they want to do,” said Barbie Skalleberg, who lives on high-dollar Strawberry Lane in Forsyth County. “If I rented a lake house, we would invite friends and have fun and everything.”
But Skalleberg has lived in the lake for 20 years, and she and her husband have lost interest in hearing live bands playing at midnight in the rented homes on the Lane. Or walking out on the deck to find a wedding going on in her backyard.
“We’re really close (to the neighboring house), and I looked out there once and they’re having a wedding,” Skalleberg said. “Basically, it’s my backyard and it’s not like they were noisy or drunk or anything. I was just like, ‘Oh, there’s a wedding back there.’”
What she thought was a couple scoping out the neighbor’s home to buy earlier that year was actually a bride-to-be doing research on her venue.
Rentals are part of the sharing economy’s rise — and the rise of the gig economy, in which working-age adults make ends meet through a variety of incomes rather than a single, bread-winning job. More property owners are looking to draw some cash from their possessions, whether it’s driving their 2010 Nissan for Uber or Lyft or putting their second home up for rent on the weekends.
But around Lake Lanier, and in Hall County generally, almost no one is playing by the county’s rules — even if they’re not bothering their neighbors. So now the county is doing a rewrite.
About a dozen people visited the Hall County Planning Department in 2017 inquiring about vacation rental licenses, said Planning Director Srikanth Yamala. Zero people applied and were granted a license in the entire year.
In total, the county has eight active business licenses for vacation rentals, and some of those are years old, according to Yamala. There are dozens of properties available for rent online.
Rentals with a license are required to collect hotel taxes and sales taxes and meet requirements of the license.
On paper, rentals are only allowed in the vacation cottage and residential-I zones. In the vacation cottage zone, rentals are allowed “by right” and are only required to get a business license, according to Yamala. In the residential-I zone, the approval of the Hall County Board of Commissioners is required before a residence can be used as a vacation rental.
In all of time, commissioners have only approved one vacation rental zoning request in the R-I zone. That was seven years ago, according to Yamala.
In Bell’s case, not only did her neighbor not have a license, the property wasn’t in the correct zone to allow vacation rentals in the first place.
Next month, the county will release its proposed regulatory changes for vacation rentals on Feb. 9 to the Planning Commission.
“We’re still brainstorming — staff and administration — because we don’t really have a clear idea (about how to police rentals)” Yamala said. “I can tell you this much: I think this board wants to definitely take into consideration the full-time residents who obviously have their full-time houses here in Hall County.”
He continued that the goal “is not to shut out these short term rentals but to have a mechanism where the neighbor is aware of what’s going on next door.”
But on stepping up enforcement throughout the county, an effort handled by code enforcement and the Hall County Marshal’s Office, Yamala said once the county has updated ordinances in place “we will come up with a game plan as to how best to enforce it.”