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Short-term vacation rentals, long-term headache?
Lawsuits and legislation are pending
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THE WEATHER might be chilly, but the issue of short-term vacation rentals (STVRs) continues to feed the flames of controversy.

Last September, the City of Savannah adopted an amended ordinance regarding vacation rentals to accommodate the growing number of tourists seeking non-hotel-type experiences while visiting Savannah as well as residents opposed to the transience, noise and property damage STVRs can bring to their neighborhoods.

The amended ordinance delineated specific zones where registered owners of STVRs are allowed to operate and implements a cap on STVRs within city wards.

Pre-existing owner-occupiers are included in those caps, causing consternation among property owners who don’t live on site but earn income from their short-term rentals.

On December 12, 2017, the City filed a lawsuit against Mark DeWitt, who had been listing on Airbnb 26 illegal STVRs located in Ardsley Park and surrounding neighborhoods that have zoning codes prohibiting vacation rental units.

DeWitt, who operates under the company Ardsley Park Savannah, LLC, is purported to own the largest number of illegal STVRs in the City, and neighbors say at least one single-family home is dedicated solely as a laundry facility.

“The City contends residents are harmed and will continue to be harmed by the defendants’ violations of the Zoning Ordinance,” said Director of Public Communications Michelle Gavin in a press release dated Dec. 15, 2017.

“The City also contends that the defendants have acted in bad faith by refusing to comply with the Zoning Ordinance and STVR Ordinance.”

DeWitt has indicated through his attorney, Don Dyches, that he intends to fight the lawsuit on the grounds that it violates state law relating to homeowner property rights.

The following week, the City filed a second lawsuit in Superior Court against a local STVR operator. Arnold and Arlene Belzer have been fighting with the City over renting out a guest suite in their home on Washington Avenue since 2015, and officials filed a formal injunction in Superior Court on Dec. 21.

“The City has received and responded to numerous complaints from residents of the neighborhood about this illegal vacation rental, but the defendants have resisted repeated citations against this use,” said a spokesperson.

“The City will now seek temporary and permanent injunctions halting this illegal commercial use in a residential neighborhood, along with fines and attorney’s fees against the owners.” 

Savannah’s STVR owners may find reprieve in House Bill 579, which would prohibit local governments from banning short-term and vacation rentals.

Introduced last spring by Rep. Matt Dollar (R-Marietta), the bill would give the state the power to regulate STVRs and make null the City’s ordinance changes.

In December, four neighborhood associations representing several thousand local citizens—Downtown Neighborhood Association, Victorian Neighborhoods Association, Thomas Square Neighborhood Association, and Ardsley Park/Chatham Crescent Neighborhood Association—sent a letter imploring state legislators to oppose the bill, positing that it would rob local communities of control over the future of their tourism industries and facilitate the unraveling of the charms so valuable to Savannah’s historic district.

“We believe Savannah’s revised STVR ordinance illustrates how enlightened, local management of STVRs can work. HB 579 would undo all of that progress,” cites the letter, advocating for “home rule” when it comes to STVR regulation.

“HB 579, as currently written, undercuts the fundamental right and obligation of a city to protect its residents from what would otherwise be, in Savannah, the gutting of our neighborhoods, turning wonderful historic residential property into transient lodging.”

The bill is currently in its second reading, and Dollar received feedback through 2017. With the increasing profile of Airbnb and 11 million people expected to visit Savannah in 2018, HB 579 will be closely watched by those on both sides of the issue.

Also in December, the City of Tybee Island voted to increase its fees for its 1100 short-term vacation rental properties this year, citing the need to fund new staff positions to maintain the island’s registry and keep up with complaint of full-time beach residents. The $75-per-property increase went into effect in January.

“Our residents have been asking for that for a year now,” Councilman Monty Parks told the Savannah Morning News after the amended ordinance passed. “It’s a step in the right direction.”