The tensions surrounding Councilman Steven Dixon's lawsuit against the city of Auburn and the Council he serves on over the short-term rental ordinance have remained largely out of public view the past several months. That changed last week as the tensions exploded from the background into public view at the City Council's regular meeting.
First, a little background. The City Council passed the short-term rental ordinance in March after years of public meetings, hearings and work sessions on the topic, including those held for the Short-Term Rental Task Force, the Planning Commission and the City Council.
The Planning Department produced multiple draft ordinances throughout the process, with the final proposed draft sent to the Planning Commission in January. The Commission recommended approval of the ordinance, which would have prohibited short-term rentals in Neighborhood Conservation districts, by a 7-2 vote.
The Council then took up the ordinance in February and looked poised to allow short-term rentals in NC districts, passing an amendment that would have allowed homestays in traditional single-family neighborhoods. That passage of that amendment paused deliberations so that the ordinance could be re-advertised. During the interim, the Council received significant pushback from residents, prompting the Council to reverse course and amend the ordinance again to reinstate the prohibition of STRs in Neighborhood Conservation zones.
After applying for and being denied a business license to operate an STR out of his home on Green Street, which falls within an NC zone, Dixon filed suit against the City, Mayor Ron Anders, all City Council members, sans himself, and other city employees in June. The lawsuit claims that the city's short-term rental ordinance is unconstitutional and subjects Dixon to "irreparable injury" and "arbitrarily and capriciously inhibits" what he can do with his home, among other complaints.
The City sought to have the case dismissed during a hearing on Oct. 4. Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker granted the city's motion to dismiss as it pertained to City Council members as private individuals, but allowed the suit to otherwise proceed.
The city filed a second motion to dismiss in November. Walker referred back to the court's order from Oct. 26, saying, "It is the Court's understanding that no one remains being sued in their individual capacity."
A motion for summary judgment hearing has been set for Feb. 1.
Since Dixon's lawsuit was filed in June, Councilman Kelley Griswold has provided frequent updates during Council meetings on how much the lawsuit is costing the city in attorneys fees. He did so again at last Tuesday's Council meeting, stating that, as of Oct. 31, the city had incurred $37,065.31 in legal fees. Griswold said he provided the update in response to inquiries from the public.
Dixon, who has largely remained silent about the lawsuit during City Council meetings, immediately responded to Griswold's update.
"This litigation would have never began if this Council didn't adopt one of the most discriminatory and unlawful ordinances in Auburn's history. Giving the rights to some in the community and then banning others is discrimination at its finest," said Dixon, who added that the lawsuit could end quickly if the Council amended the ordinance to be "fair and equitable for everyone" in the city. "Mr. Griswold, I would not invest the tens of thousands of dollars this suit is costing me if I wasn't certain that I'm going to win."
Dixon also stated that the lawsuit wasn't about him and that he was not seeking financial damages before becoming more brusque in his tone.
"Mr. Griswold, if you want me to stop my lawsuit against the city of Auburn, do what is right, bring this back up making short-term rentals fair and equitable for everyone in the city of Auburn. Then and only then will I drop my suit against the city of Auburn."
Dixon's remarks drew immediate pushback from Councilman Tommy Dawson.
"I'm not gonna sit here and take that," said Dawson. "Steven, you're totally off-base with what you just pulled. He's got a right to talk about how much money's been spent just like you've got the right to sue ... if you want to. But to yell like you just did in here, that's totally unprofessional, and that's not Auburn. I'm working on my 35th year serving this city and you're not showing yourself to be a good Auburn person tonight (with) what you're doing.
"That pitchin' a fit thing just don't get it, and that's what you just did. You had a little temper tantrum because you didn't like what he was doing."