Decatur officials plan to end near-ban on Airbnb-style rentals
June 26 – Short-term residential rentals, such as through Airbnb, are common in Decatur despite an ordinance that almost completely bans them, but some city officials think it’s time to ease restrictions while still taking measures to limit the impact on residential areas.
Short-term rentals of private homes are growing in popularity, but creating controversy across the country as cities struggle to regulate rentals and protect neighboring homeowners.
Companies like Airbnb and Vrbo allow private owners to rent out homes or parts of homes using an app or website, much like a hotel.
At the urging of the Planning Commission last week, city planner Lee Terry began forming a committee to study relaxing the city’s short-term rental regulations.
Terry emailed the five council members asking them to select a representative from their district to sit on the committee.
In July 2016, Decatur virtually banned short-term rentals of residential homes. The city ordinance considers short-term rentals to be 30 days or less, and they are only permitted in B-2, the General Zoning Districts, and B-5, the Central Business Districts.
They are permitted in R-4 multi-family residential (apartment) neighborhoods if the owner obtains a waiver from the City Council of Zoning Adjustments or the Building Department. They are not permitted in any other residential area.
Among the concerns cited by city officials when passing the 2016 restrictions were that frequent and transient visitors could disrupt a neighborhood and raise safety concerns; that visitors might throw loud parties or take other actions that disturb neighbours; and that if more than one room in a house was rented to different people at a time, the practice could cause traffic problems, especially in the historic district.
“The city needs meaningful regulations when there still aren’t a ton of short-term (home) rentals,” Terry said last week.
Terry said short-term rentals are becoming more popular “so there’s a desire from the city to get ahead of that while we can.”
Council Speaker Jacob Ladner said the city needs to adjust its ordinance because, like it or not, short-term rentals are taking place in Decatur.
“As the mayor of Auburn said in a town hall meeting that I watched online recently, ‘These things are here and they’re not going away,'” Ladner said.
On Friday, Airbnb’s website showed 15 rentals available in Decatur, including one RV. The Vrbo website showed 15 rentals available in the city.
Most of these short-term rentals are in homes located in residential neighborhoods where the practice is not permitted.
However, Revenue Department Director Lori Rossetti said the city was not enforcing the ordinance because there was no licensing process from which a database of short-term rental properties term could be compiled.
“We know they are happening, but we can’t do anything until we have a plan,” Rossetti said.
Wally Terry, now retired, was the city’s chief development officer and lead proponent of Decatur’s restraining ordinance passed in July 2016.
“We put the restrictions in place primarily so that we wouldn’t let this get out of control,” Wally Terry said of the initial restrictions. “The city council was not ready at the time for a full ordinance.”
However, he said last week that he believed the time was right for the city to consider easing its restrictions. He said the restraining order puts the city in a good position because it’s easier to relax the order and add required licenses than to tighten it.
Decatur isn’t alone in battling the problem.
Last year, Auburn City Council member Steven Dixon filed a lawsuit against his own city over its restriction on short-term rentals. Dixon had been renting out his property since 2018, and The Plainsman newspaper reported that he said he “lost my right to use my house as I see fit.”
Dixon was found guilty in Auburn City Court of violating the city’s short-term rental ordinance.
Dixon’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed by the circuit court on June 17.
In March, Prattville imposed a 10-month moratorium on short-term rentals while it seeks to resolve the issue, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
Mountain Brook prohibits renting a home for less than 30 days while Homewood prohibits rentals for less than 90 days in residential neighborhoods.
Huntsville in 2018 moved to short-term rental as long as the landlord obtains a business license and pays lodging tax. Mayor Tommy Battle said at the time that the move benefited tourism and increased the city’s revenue.
In January, Madison passed an ordinance that only allows short-term rentals of homes that are the owner’s primary residence. The ordinance also requires the owner to purchase a “rooming house tourism zoning permit.” The permit costs $100 for the application fee and an annual fee of $100.
The city of Northaven, Mississippi, banned short-term rentals in March “to preserve the sanctity of the single-family residential community,” Kevin Stafford, chairman of the Northaven Planning Commission, told the Columbus, Mississippi, Dispatch.
Kent Lawrence, chairman of the Decatur Planning Commission, said “good, tough regulations” can protect both short-term rentals and their neighboring single-family homes.
“Right now they’re here,” Lawrence said. “And we need regulations that we can enforce.”
In addition to a business license, Lawrence pointed out that the city can also begin collecting lodging taxes from those staying in a short-term rental.
“The city loses the lodging tax when people use a short-term rental and don’t stay at one of the city’s hotels or motels,” Lawrence said. “Anything less than 180 days, or six months, and they’re supposed to pay an accommodation tax.”
As part of a new ordinance allowing short-term rentals, Chief Code Inspector David Lee said the city will have to decide how it will enforce the new regulations and how the city wants its departments to handle the enforcement, inspections and licensing.
“They have to decide what they want and how far they want to go,” Lee said. “It’s going to take people and money whatever they decide to do, and none of the departments have enough staff to do it.”
Rossetti said she believes her department can handle short-term rental licenses without additional employees. The department’s enforcement officer would then ensure licenses are purchased and short-term rental landlords comply with the city’s ordinance.
“Once they approve a new order, we’ll send letters, give them that many days to comply, and then the enforcement officer will visit if they don’t comply,” Rosetti said.
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