After years of debate and discussion, the city of Auburn now has an ordinance on the books to regulate short-term rentals, as the City Council approved the draft ordinance sent its way by the Planning Commission at its virtual meeting on Tuesday night.
The Council backtracked from a previous amendment passed in February that would have allowed short-term rentals in the form of "homestays" in traditional-family neighborhoods and that prompted a pause in deliberations to re-advertise the draft ordinance.
The Council passed on a 5-3 vote Mayor Ron Anders' amendment that again prohibited short-term rentals in those neighborhoods in the Neighborhood Conservation, Development District Housing, Limited Development and Large Lot Residential districts. Short-term rentals are also prohibited in the Corridor Redevelopment –West and Neighborhood Redevelopment districts east of North Donahue.
Council members Brett Smith, Beth Witten and Jay Hovey voted against the amendment and the ordinance for varying reasons, with Councilman Steven Dixon recusing himself because he operates a short-term rental.
Smith voted against the ordinance because of what he sees as unequal treatment of neighborhoods under the Planning Commission's zone-based approach.
“If you accept the position that this is a problem in some neighborhoods, but you’re going to vote for it in other neighborhoods, you’re treating these like-neighborhoods unequal,” Smith said. "You're saying one gets preferential treatment while the other doesn't.
"If you accept the proposition that this is destructive and this is a safety issue and you pass this ordinance, you're saying I'm willing to accept those destructive policies in certain areas of the town and to certain neighborhoods and to certain families, but not to others. And I cannot support that type of public policy."
The Council received a large amount of feedback from the public after it paused its deliberations in February. Throughout the process, many arguing against allowing short-term rentals in traditional-family neighborhoods cited safety concerns and nuisance as their reasons.
The debate over short-term regulations in the city has been a passionate one and has, at times, turned ugly, most notably in an exchange in February between Witten and Councilman Bob Parsons, whose statements against her amendment took a personal tone and prompted an outcry from fellow Councilman Tommy Dawson and an apology from Anders for not stepping in sooner.
Witten defended the amendment she put forth in February that would have allowed homestays in NC, DDH and LDD, saying that assertions that it was unethical or irresponsible were "simply false."
Some of the correspondence from the public to the Council over the past month has also crossed the line, according to Witten and other council members.
"I'm not going to sit back and just let the countless disrespectful emails that we have received go unspoken to, because it's been divisive, it's been ugly ... ," said Witten, who added that she thought the ordinance as passed would be impossible to regulate. "I appreciate everyone who has brought forth suggestions to this process because this should be an ongoing conversation.
"I still believe that this speaks to equality and equity, and for those reasons I will not be supporting what has been presented to use as an amended ordinance."
After thanking everyone who was involved in the process — from the Short-term Rental Task Force he formed to the Planning Commission —Anders cited the precedent set by previous city councils pertaining to single-family neighborhoods as his reason for proposing the amendment.
"Some of you have reminded me of the months-long discussion held in 1984 when Neighborhood Conservations districts were created and subsequent promises of elected officials always to protect single-family neighborhoods zoned NC. Over the years, successive city councils have adhered to this commitment to protect neighborhood conservation (districts). I appreciate that commitment and pledge to do my best to adhere to it as well."
The move to approve the amendment and ordinance followed a lengthy public hearing over Zoom where residents spoke on both sides of the short-term rental issue.
Joshua Poole, who lives in a DDH-zoned home, said that making extra money for a shared bedroom was a determining factor in his family’s decision for homeownership.
“We use Airbnb and Vrbo throughout the nation and Europe,” Poole said. “We love having guests over, we have friends and family over and none of that seems to be an issue.
“The issue seems to be if we charge these people. Let’s say we have someone who is down on their luck and staying with us — what’s wrong with them throwing us a few bucks to pay our utilities?”
Poole stated that while other residents may see short-term rentals as a degradation of the community, in his opinion, many of these rentals are well-maintained for business purposes.
“You have maintained a nice property because this is technically a side business for owners,” Poole said. “These rentals won't attract riffraff off the street because most owners won't allow that kind into their homes in the first place.”
Louise Katainen, who has lived in her South Gay Street home with her husband since 1984, told council members that the selection of their home was due to the quiet, family-friendly nature of the Neighborhood Conservation District near the center of town and Auburn University. When conversations about the possible introduction of short-term rentals in neighborhoods like hers began, Katainen said she became increasingly worried.
“We are troubled by recent efforts to allow money-making short-term rentals and homestays in neighborhood conservations zones where some of the charges can be $1,000 dollars or more per day,” Katainen said. “We strongly urge council members to reconsider the vote taken last month on the amended ordinance and we urge instead that council members vote to adopt the original version of the ordinance that came out of the Planning Commission.”
The approved ordinance takes a two-tiered approach to regulating short-term rentals either as "homestays" or "short-term non-primary rentals." Both uses would be allowed in those zones that allow up to five unrelated people to live under the same roof.
Homestays must be the permanent residence of the owner and may not operate more than 90 days per licensing year when the owner is not present, while STNPRs need not be the owner's permanent residence and are limited to operating 240 days per calendar year.