Athens City Building

The Athens City Building.

The Athens City Planning Commission voted unanimously on Jan. 2 to approve a recommendation to change city zoning code to regulate the operation of short-term rentals – such as Airbnb and VRBO – in the city of Athens.

With this approval, the proposed changes to city zoning code now go to Athens City Council for consideration. Council also will need to schedule a public hearing; they next meet on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Athens City Building (it’s not yet clear when the hearing will be, though).

The recommended zoning change would place new regulations in the city’s zoning code affecting rental properties, to regulate short-term rentals in a similar manner to the city’s long-term rental properties.

The recommendation sets down the following regulations for owners of short-term rental who live in the home in question:

The regulations allow for “the keeping of not more than two renters by a resident owner for periods of less than 30 days,” the code reads. “Housekeeping units may not keep short-term renters. Short-term rentals must be annually permitted per provisions in (the city code on rental properties).” 

These short-term rentals can be operated in any zone of the city where rental units are currently allowed to operate, but only if they are occupied by the owner, and only if the owner successfully receives and keeps a city rental permit.

The change to zoning code offers a separate set of requirements for short-term rentals operated by non-resident owners of homes. A non-resident owner is somebody who owns a property but doesn’t live there.

In those situations, the non-resident owners can have no more than three adult renters, plus related children, staying for periods of less than 30 days. Additionally, the home must be located either on an R-1 (residential zone) lot that abuts an R-2, R-3 zone, or B-zone; or the home must front East State Street, Carpenter Street, Lancaster Street or Columbus Road in Athens.

Finally, these non-resident owners wishing to operate short-term rentals will need to obtain a conditional use permit from the city in the first place, which means the city Board of Zoning Appeals will need to approve that permit being issued. They’ll also need to obtain a rental permit from the city, just like the operators of owner-occupied short-term rentals.

This proposal represents a departure from a previous set of rules affecting short-term rentals that was discussed during a public forum in November. That older, now-scrapped proposal had recommended opening up all zones in the city for short-term rental operations. 

During that forum in November, many residents of R-1-zoned residential neighborhoods expressed concerns about their neighborhoods being opened up to Airbnb operations. They voiced concerns about the potential for noise, parking issues and other disruptions to neighbors’ quality of life from short-term renters.

The new changes appear to be the result of a compromise after the Planning Commission and the city administration heard those citizens’ issues, at least with regard to the regulations keeping non-resident owners of short-term rentals away from operating in the heart of the city’s residential zones.

Still, Jan Hodson, a Far East Side resident, expressed doubts that the city can adequately enforce the proposed rules. She asked Andy Stone, Planning Commission member and city service-safety director, what would happen if a resident-owner of a short-term rental were to leave town for six months and simply rent out the home while gone. 

“The only real safeguard you’re sort of giving us is that you’re expecting the owner to be on the property at all times,” Hodson said.

Stone responded that that wouldn’t happen because those owners would need to live in the home in order to keep their rental permit; if they didn’t, they could have their rental permit pulled, and if they continue to operate without that license, they would be cited into court, Stone said. These residences will be inspected annually just like the traditional long-term rentals are in Athens.

You can find a copy of the proposed zoning changes with this story online at www.athensnews.com.

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