Smyrna fine tuning new law to regulate vacation rentals

ExploreMetro Atlanta cities wrestle with whether to ban Airbnb or cash in

Short-term rentals, where visitors pay a daily rate to reside at private properties for 30 days or less, are an increasingly growing market in metro Atlanta. Websites offering rental services include Airbnb and Vrbo have exploded in popularity.

Georgia does not have state laws for vacation rentals but sets the state and local bed taxes that are collected from the stays. While Cobb County does not have any restrictions, county officials are in the process of incorporating vacation rental regulations into its code.

Smyrna currently has no laws to specifically address the rentals. The city’s task force studied vacation rental ordinances imposed in Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, Hall County, South Fulton, Macon-Bibb County, Savannah, Columbus and Atlanta.

Smyrna’s Community Development Department, which includes code enforcement, has been working to craft the measure since March, when Mayor Derek Norton commissioned a task force to take a look at Smyrna’s vacation rental market.

According to Community Development Director Rusty Martin, Smyrna currently has 342 short-term rentals. A large swath of them are clustered in the city’s northeast corridor near The Battery.

Last week’s town hall was the fifth time the task force met. The panel is expected to present a final draft of the ordinance to Smyrna’s committee of the whole before it goes in front of City Council for approval early next year.

If the ordinance is adopted, city leaders would have to decide how to handle fees and enforcement while the administration works to set up the application and licensing process. Martin said the new law could take effect as soon as July 1.

Each short-term rental would need a designated “agent” who lives close enough to maintain the property and handle any issues that arise there. Owners must prove they have liability insurance of at least $500,000.

The task force plans to limit occupancy levels during overnight hours to cut down on “party houses.” The max number of guests short-term rental homes could allow between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. would be twice the number of bedrooms plus three, according to the ordinance.

That would cap overnight occupancy at 11 for a four-bedroom rental, or nine for a single-family home with three bedrooms.

All vehicles would have to be parked on hard surfaces, restricting them from rights-of-way, roadways and on neighboring properties, according to the proposed ordinance.

The city could revoke the license of property owners who have three code violations within 24 months, making them ineligible to operate a vacation rental for a year.

The proposed ordinance also prohibits homeowners from renting out their single-family homes more than 180 days per calendar year. That was a main point of contention for many property owners who do business on Airbnb now.

Some said they often rent to local families remodeling their homes or in the process of moving who may need to stay at a vacation rental for several months. Others claimed their properties routinely attract traveling nurses from Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, who need long-term stays.

They worried that the 180-day rule would be an unnecessary limitation that could negatively impact families in need.

“Part of the reason that they’re using Airbnb is because they’re not having to sign a lease,” said Ben Ferris, a Smyrna resident who runs a rental property. “They’re not having to put down a deposit. It’s a turnkey type of situation.”

Councilman Tim Gould explained that the limitation on days is meant to keep investment companies from buying properties in residential neighborhoods and transforming them into non-stop vacation rentals.

“Folks that typically buy in those single-family neighborhoods, they don’t expect an active business to be next door to them,” he said.

Lysondra Somerville, a homeowner in the Woodland Brooke subdivision, applauded the 180-day limit as a necessary compromise for homeowners who live near the rental properties.

She said one property in her cul-de-sac has become a party house with out-of-towners regularly drinking, smoking and loudly talking in the middle of the street all night long. The home’s owner has not done enough to regulate the clientele, she indicated.

“It’s just the transient nature of Atlanta when people come to town to party,” Somerville said. “They don’t care about the neighborhood or the neighbors. They’re just trying to have a good time. And it’s hard to get the homeowner to take responsibility.”

Alan Hansen, who opened an Airbnb on Love Street near downtown Smyrna in 2017, was concerned about the city overreacting.

“I think if there are those that are in violation of the rules, they need to be dealt with. But don’t penalize the rest of us with restrictions related to a very positive influence in our community,” he said. “I don’t want bad actors. I feel like the goal is to make it good for everybody and the bad actors need to be dealt with.”