Auburn City Councilman Steven Dixon filed suit against the City Council and city officials last week over the short-term rental ordinance, claiming it is unconstitutional and that it “arbitrarily and capriciously inhibits” what he can do with his home and subjects him to “irreparable injury.”
“It was really a difficult decision to do this,” Dixon told The Villager, adding that he was approached by other residents who are affected by the ordinance and that his lawsuit is really representing them as well despite him being the only plaintiff. “It’s really the only avenue that I have to combat the ordinance that was passed.”
Dixon, who represents Ward 5, filed the unusual suit against the body he serves on in Lee County Circuit Court last Friday. The named defendants include the eight other members of the City Council, including Mayor Ron Anders; City Manager Megan McGowen Crouch; Acting Planning Director Katie Robison; Principal Planner Logan Kipp; Cheryl Van Tuyl, revenue accountant for the city; and Allison Edge, the city’s finance director.
“The lawsuit filed by Mr. Dixon is an unprecedented action by a sitting council member who swore an oath to uphold the laws of the city of Auburn and the state of Alabama, and has filed a lawsuit to do the very opposite in violation of his oaths,” said City Attorney Rick Davidson to The Villager. “Be that as it may, the City of Auburn is going to defend the lawsuit vigorously. And beyond that, the substance of the lawsuit we really can’t talk about.”
Dixon, who is being represented by Capell & Howard, P.C. out of Opelika, said he has no plans to resign his Council seat, a position he said his counsel supported.
“I am ready to fight this vigorously as well,” said Dixon in response to Davidson’s statement. “It is unprecedented that a council member is doing this, but like I said, what I believe the Council voted on and did is against the rights of our citizens, of Alabama citizens, and we’re going to fight tooth and nail against the City and get our rights back.”
Dixon has partially rented his home on Green Street as a short-term rental since 2018 and “continues to receive substantial income,” with “several contracts upcoming” that were made with rental clients before the Council passed the city’s short-term rental ordinance in March. The lawsuit states the ordinance is “not based on reasonable conditions” and that its enactment “substantially impaired” the value of Dixon’s contracts. The lawsuit also claims the ordinance violates the Alabama Constitution and equal protection rights and is an invasion of privacy.
Dixon’s suit seeks to have the Circuit Court enjoin the city from enforcing its short-term rental ordinance.
Dixon recused himself from the Council’s deliberations and vote on the ordinance, which prohibits short-term primary rentals and homestays in Neighborhood Conservation Districts, where Dixon’s home is located. Previously, the city had no ordinance regulating short-term rentals.
Short-term rentals emerged as a substantial issue leading up the 2018 Municipal Elections. The Villager canvassed those running for Council and asked them about many issues facing the city, including short-term rentals.
In a September 2018 interview with The Villager, Dixon shared his thoughts on regulating short-term rentals in the city, saying the creation of a noise ordinance, a three-strike complaint system with fines, a business license and the requirement that the home be occupied by the owner at the time of rental would be good ways to regulate short-term rentals.
After the Municipal Election in 2018, Mayor Ron Anders created a task force to look at short-term rentals. Over the course of the following year, the task force held multiple public meetings before passing on its recommendations and a draft ordinance crafted by the Planning Department to the Planning Commission in January 2020.
The Commission held multiple work sessions over the year, passing its recommended draft ordinance in late January.
The City Council then took up the issue in February, passing an amendment that would have allowed homestays in traditional single-family neighborhoods, including in Neighborhood Conservation. The amendment prompted a pause in deliberations to advertise the proposed changes.
After some pushback from residents, the Council backtracked at its meeting in March, passing a new amendment and a final ordinance that once again prohibited all forms of short-term rentals in neighborhoods zoned Neighborhood Conservation.
After that vote in March, Dixon repeatedly applied for and was denied a business license with the City, as well as a zoning certificate from the Planning Department, to operate a short-term rental, according to a letter to Dixon from Davidson.
“It has been repeatedly made clear to you that the operation of a short-term rental out of your home is unlawful under the City’s short-term rental regulations,” the letter stated.