Athens City Building

The Athens City Building.

Dozens of citizens attended a public hearing hosted by the Athens Planning Commission Tuesday evening, with many expressing concerns about proposed city regulations governing short-term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO.

Many of those who spoke during the hearing at the Athens Community Center expressed concerns about the portion of the proposed changes to city code that would allow “homestay” and “tourist home” short-term rentals in areas zoned for residential uses in the city limits. A recording of the event can be found by going to this link.

According to documents outlining the proposed changes to city code, those who want to operate short-term homestay rentals in the city would have to own and live in the residence in question, and could not rent it out for more than 30 days, with a maximum of two guest rooms allowed with no more than two adults per room at a time.

Meanwhile, the proposed rules would separate those homestay residences from “tourist home” short-term rentals, in which somebody can rent out a home they own but don’t live in, so long as the owners themselves live within 250 feet of the residence. In that situation, a maximum of three guest rooms would be allowed, with no more than two adults per room.

The documents provide that, so long as the owners of these short-term rentals obtain the appropriate city permit, both homestays and tourist homes would be allowed in R-1, R-2, R-3 ( “residential zones”) and B (“business zones”) in the city, although there would be a limit of one tourist home per operator in the generally more restrictive R-1 and R-2 zones.

The proposed code change would also prohibit traditional bed and breakfasts in R-1 and R-2 zones of the city, but would allow them in B and R-3 zones (with appropriate permit).

Currently, the city does allow owner-occupied bed-and-breakfast businesses to be located in limited areas of the city with a proper permit. Those establishments can advertise themselves on short-term rental sites/apps; however, anyone without that approval could be subject to a cease-and-desist order if they are operating such a business. Despite that, more than 10 such short-term rentals currently are listed on Airbnb’s website in Athens city limits (including in the Near East Side neighborhood).

During the meeting Tuesday, resident Mary Abel, a former state representative for this area, presented a petition signed by 250 people who live in R-1 zones in the city expressing opposition to allowing “stand-alone tourist homes” in the R-1 areas of the city, calling those short-term rentals a “business operation.”

Elmwood Avenue resident Jack Stauffer said he believes that allowing those establishments in residential zones will inject unruliness into his neighborhood and others like it.

“People come here to drink and party for the most part,” Stauffer said. “…You must expect the worst-case scenario because you occasionally if not regularly get that. Which is six people that rent a house, call their other friends who came into town to come on over and party; well, there goes the regular folks’ peace and quiet. I’ve seen it play out in other neighborhoods on many weekends in this town.”

Far East Side resident Jan Hodson said she doesn’t believe there’s much of a need for more short-term rentals in Athens. According to Athens County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau data she’s received, she said, the city’s traditional short-stay accommodations (the various hotels and motels in the area) are occupied at a 72 percent rate annually, meaning that they’re seldom at maximum capacity.

“You’re clearly sacrificing the property rights of permanent, fulltime, tax-paying citizens who live and vote here in an effort to provide rooms for tourists who are only interested in a place to stay for a weekend,” she said.

Still, a few people present at the meeting said they favor the city regulating these operations and allowing them in residential zones.

Alan McMillan, who lives on East State Street near East Elementary, said that while he appreciates people’s concerns, he sees the proposed regulations as an opportunity to stimulate the local economy and allow visitors more opportunities to stay in Athens, especially during the busy weekends (such as OU’s Homecoming and Parent’s/Mom’s/Dad’s weekends) when all hotels in the city limits typically fill up.

Some during the meeting expressed concern about the potential for speculators to buy up houses in residential areas of the city – which otherwise could be converted into affordable housing – and turned those into short-term rentals.

MacMillan said that as a local rental property owner, however, he doesn’t think that “pencils out” financially.

He added that he and his wife rent out the home next to theirs (which is in an R-1 zone) as a short-term rental “on occasion,” and said they haven’t had any problems with unruly visitors. 

Now that the hearing is past, the Planning Commission will need to decide whether to recommend the proposed changes to City Council, which ultimately decide whether to codify them.

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