Lawsuit: Tybee vacation rental operators call STVR ordinance ‘unenforceable’

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

The city's ongoing attempts at regulating the short-term vacation rental (STVR) industry prompted a group of vacation rental companies and individual homeowners to file a lawsuit in Chatham County Superior Court on Wednesday morning. The plaintiffs, who call themselves the Tybee Alliance, claim that Tybee Island's existing STVR ordinance, enacting in 2016, is not legally enforceable under Georgia law.

The City of Tybee Island as well as individual council members, the mayor and the city manager are named as defendants.

Tybee officials are in the process of updating the ordinance and imposing stricter regulations. The updated law is currently in draft form but could be up for adoption at the next Tybee Council meeting, scheduled for Oct. 13.

During the last council meeting in September, discussions on potential new regulations aimed at limiting the number of vacation rentals on the island drew more than two hours of public comments.

Homeowners, property management companies and others opposed to the proposed changes accused the city of restricting property rights. Several speakers implored the council not to enact an amendment that would bar homes in residential districts from becoming a vacation rental if they weren't already registered as one.

Others, mainly longtime residents, encouraged the city to move forward with the regulations, citing long-needed guardrails against vacation rentals popping up within their neighborhoods and diminishing a sense of community.

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Legal action was next step

For over a year now, Tybee Island has instituted a moratorium that paused issuing new STVR permits to properties within the city's residential zones. In that time, the city has hosted town halls, stakeholder meetings and workshops to discuss how to better regulate STVRs while keeping both businesses' and residents' interests in mind.

So far, the city has enacted a new fee structure for STVR properties and an occupancy rate. Other discussions, namely implementing a cap on the number of STVRs in certain zoning districts, have been brought up, explored and dissected throughout the duration of the moratorium.

Members of the Tybee Alliance have participated in the dialogue. With a vote on the ordinance looming, the time had come for legal action, according to Dustin Church, chair of the board of the Tybee Alliance.

"We've spent the last year, as vacation rental managers and as a broader coalition, trying work hand in hand with council to come up with solutions that work for everybody, protects the rights of employees, the property rights of homeowners and don't harm the economy of the island," Chruch said.

Credit: Courtesy of Tybee Island

Credit: Courtesy of Tybee Island

Church said that the alliance acknowledges that over-tourism can happen and supports creating a livable community. However, after months of trying to strike a compromise, they feel as if the city is not aiming for the balance between the tourism industry and the residents' needs as they've so touted.

"The exact same ordinances proposed 4-5 months ago were exactly what was brought up for a first reading two weeks ago," said Church, "We have to defend our clients, employees, the existence of tourism on Tybee ... We feel we've been backed into a corner."

Lawsuit addresses many supposed ordinance flaws

The lawsuit alleges that several aspects of Tybee Island's current STVR ordinance violate Georgia law, and are, thus, unenforceable. Church said the alliance will modify the lawsuit to address any amendments added in the draft ordinance as needed.

Tybee's STVR ordinance has been amended at least eight times, according to the lawsuit. As written, the local ordinance requires properties to register with the city and obtain a permit, which must be renewed annually if they want to operate as a short-term vacation rental, defined as homes or units rented out to guests for 30 days or less.

However, the suit states, the existence of an STVR registry violates a part of the Georgia code that limits municipal powers on enforcement. The code reads in part, "in no event may a local government require the registration of residential rental property."

The suit also alleges that the city's mandated fees violate a part of the Georgia Code governing revenue and taxation, which reads: "A local government is authorized to require a business or practitioner of a profession or occupation to pay a regulatory fee only if the local government customarily performs investigation or inspection."

Yet, local enforcement laws preempt Tybee's government from performing such inspections, the complaint states. According to the same chapter on municipal authority, "no local government is authorized to perform investigations or inspections of residential rental property unless there is probable cause."

The ity of Savannah and Thunderbolt have similar permit fees and renewal requirements for STVRs operating within their city limits.

The alliance's frustrations are not with those other cities, though, Church said.

"We have waited to this point to file because we wanted to do everything possible and exhaust all other options before reaching the point of litigation," said Church. "At this point, we're a week away from a second reading, we've exhausted every other option."

Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter covering Chatham County municipalities. Reach her at nguan@gannett.com or on Twitter @nancyguann.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Lawsuit: Tybee vacation rental operators call STVR ordinance ‘unenforceable’


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