The Athens Planning Commission today (Thursday) is expected to continue discussion on two controversial changes to city code.
The main proposed change comes from Athens City Council member Chris Fahl, after council approved a resolution in early September asking the Planning Commission to consider amending zoning code to allow the permitting and regulation of short-term rentals in the city – a concept popularized by Airbnb and VRBO.
The other proposal would rezone an area around North Court Street (between State Street and Carpenter Street) to a B2D business zone. With this change, developers no longer would need to provide parking for business uses in buildings (parking still would have to be provided for residential uses, however).
During the Planning Commission meeting last Thursday, several members questioned Fahl on the necessity of the requested changes to zoning code, and several community members voiced concerns about the proposed changes.
Fahl outlined some of the details of the changes during that meeting.
According to documents outlining the proposed changes to city code , whose who want to operate short-term rentals in the city would have to own and live in the residence in question, and cannot 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 code would separate those “homestay” residences from “tourist home” short-term rentals, where 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 are allowed, with no more than two adults per room.
Near East Side resident Jack Stauffer said that he thinks that the “tourist home” regulations should be stricken from the ordinance entirely.
“I don’t know how that could ever be a positive thing other than for the guy who is raking in the money,” he said.
Stauffer minced no words, calling the allowing of short-term rentals “bullshit” in R-1 residential zones in the city, like where he lives.
“Athens is not a typical tourist town,” said Stauffer, who is retired from running a plumbing business in Athens. “When people come to Athens, Ohio, for the weekend, 50, 60, 70 percent are coming down here to drink and raise hell. I like to drink and raise hell as much as anyone else but I do it in my own back yard, and I keep my music down.”
Commission Chair RJ Sumney also said he was concerned with short-term rentals being permitted by the city in general, arguing that proliferation of short-terms could reduce property values of permanent residents and cause parking problems.
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).
Maplewood Drive resident and local historian Betty Hollow said she’s also concerned about permitting short-term rentals in R-1 zones.
“Why is Athens charging ahead to allow short-term rentals in R-1 districts when cities across the country are in fact struggling to control these?” she asked. “…Is it feasible to increase the percentage of rentals in a city that is already 75 percent rentals?”
Fahl explained during the meeting that the city’s Code Enforcement Office would enforce the new regulations. Resident and former Board of Zoning Appeals member Joan Kraynanski said during the meeting that the code office is already overloaded with inspecting rental housing in the city, along with other responsibilities. This makes it likely that the proposed regulations on short-term rentals would not be enforced thoroughly, she predicted.
The Planning Commission meeting is set for noon today at the Athens City Building.
EARLIER IN THE meeting last week, City Planner Paul Logue presented potential changes to the zoning of North Court Street, from B-3 to a B-2D designation. The main effect of that zoning change is that businesses would no longer need to provide parking for customers, and that new or re-developed buildings could be up to four stories in height, as opposed to the current limit of three and a half stories.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson – a Planning Commission member – argued that this zoning change would encourage business development on that block of Court Street. He said this could encourage redevelopment of parking lots in the area, which he said are currently underutilized.
Barbara Stout, owner of Athens Underground on North Court Street, said during the meeting last week that she was not sure how this could help encourage business growth in the area. She also asked how the proposal came to fruition.
Patterson responded that he was approached by "several property owners" on the north block of Court Street who were seeking changes to the zoning to remove the parking requirements.
Kraynanski also spoke during this portion of the meeting, and said she was not in favor of the proposal because it would encourage further "parking out" of cars away from Court Street, into residential neighborhoods like hers (she lives on Mound Street).
She further said that she believes the change in allowable height maximum for new buildings will just encourage uptown Athens further becoming a "breakfast community" that entirely caters to students rather than long-time residents, with more student apartment complexes.
Logue said he believes the change will encourage more people to take the bus, bike or walk uptown, and would encourage more foot traffic in that way.
Athens resident Rob Delach similarly said he thought the re-zoning proposal would help bring foot traffic back to the area. He said that the current spaces where parking lots are on North Court Street are like "missing teeth" in the fabric of buildings in the area, making it a "not very pleasant place" to walk.