In an order filed last Friday, Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob A. Walker III found in favor of the city of Auburn, granting its motion for summary judgment, while denying Councilman Steven Dixon's respective motion and dismissing each of his claims from a civil suit he filed last June pertaining to the city's short-term rental ordinance.
Judge Walker found that there were "no genuine issues of material fact" to any of Dixon's claims, which challenged the validity and enforceability of City Ordinance 3288, which established the rules governing short-term rentals in the city of Auburn.
The claims in an amended complaint filed by Dixon in November included that the ordinance resulted in impairment of contract; unlawful taking without just compensation; invasion of privacy; violation of Alabama Equal Protection Law; retroactive law; invasion of privacy and Alabama Equal Protection law violation; among other claims.
The ordinance, which the City Council approved in March of 2021, creates two STR uses — short-term non primary rentals and homestays, which includes the requirement that the home be the owner's primary residence.
The ordinance prohibits both uses in traditional single-family neighborhoods, though, including those zoned Neighborhood Conservation, among others. Dixon had rented the basement of his home, which is located in an NC zone and is his primary residence, on a short-term basis since 2018, before the city had any ordinance regulating short-term rentals.
At the hearing for Dixon's civil lawsuit in March, Judge Walker questioned whether the city of Auburn collecting lodging taxes from entities like Airbnb before the STR ordinance was enacted in 2021 created a vested right. In his order last Friday, Walker wrote that Dixon's use of his property as a homestay was "not legally established" prior to the passage of the STR ordinance and "does not qualify as a protectable nonconforming use" under either general Alabama law or the city's zoning ordinance.
Walker similarly found against Dixon's other claims. He found that the city's STR ordinance was a "reasonably adapted exercise of the City's police power," did not constitute "unlawful taking" without just compensation, and that it met the "substantially related" rule and "fairly debatable" rule that the Alabama Supreme Court had previously identified as applicable to a court's review of municipal zoning regulations.
Walker pointed toward the numerous discussions on short-term rentals that took place as part of the Short-Term Rental Task Force, the public hearings before the Planning Commission and debate among council members at City Council meetings as satisfying the fairly debatable rule. Councilman Dixon recused himself from all deliberations and votes of the City Council over the short-term rental ordinance. Walker also found that the ordinance satisfied the substantially related rule because it promotes public health, safety, morals or general welfare.
"In enacting Ordinance 3288, the City Council specifically recognized and debated the concerns expressed by the citizens regarding whether or not to regulate short-term rentals within the City and the extent to which such rentals should be regulated," wrote Walker in his 19-page order. "These concerns included the preservation of the neighborhood characteristics of certain zoning districts within the City and the prevention of the neighborhood characteristics of certain zoning districts within the City and the prevention of increased parking, additional traffic, increased noise complaints, and the potential for increased criminal activity, all of which are related to the promotion of the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare."
As of May 31, the cumulative legal expenses incurred by the city of Auburn to defend against Dixon's civil lawsuit stood at $105,294, according to the city. The Villager left a message requesting comment with Councilman Dixon, who replied that he would reach out after meeting with his attorney this afternoon.
In a separate case litigated in May, Presiding Municipal Judge Jim McKoon found that Dixon had violated the city's short-term rental ordinance by continuing to rent out his house, or a portion of it, through Airbnb after the zoning ordinance went into effect last spring.
At the hearing in May, Dixon indicated he planned to appeal the decision, but no appeal has been filed with the Circuit Court, according to the Lee County Circuit Clerk's Office.
Previous (and related) coverage of Councilman Dixon's short-term rental lawsuit.