Bill Durrence: Some areas already oversaturated with STVRs

The Savannah Morning News editorial concerning the compromise on Short Term Vacation Rentals (STVRs) on July 7 managed to miss, and misunderstand, several salient points.

 

There is the implication the tipping point of transient guests versus residents in a neighborhood has been fixed with the 20 percent cap (not the 15 percent cap specified later in the editorial) on STVRs in a ward (not per block, as the editorial said).

This assumption ignores the fact that of the 50 wards where (legal) vacation rental certificates exist, 15 of them (30 percent) are already over the 20 percent cap. Eight of those are already over 30 percent vacation rental property and two are over 40 percent. If 20 percent is the benchmark for protecting “certain areas from being oversaturated,” residents in 15 wards have already lost the battle.

The resolution voted on by council (this was not an ordinance) will go to the MPC to be turned into an amendment to the current STVR ordinance and brought back to Council for a vote. That will take, optimistically, two to three months. In the meantime, the Tourism and Ambassadorship office will continue to issue new rental certifications. So those wards already over the cap can continue to add even more rental units until an ordinance revision is passed.

In addition, there are 12 more wards currently in the 15-19 percent STVR range. Certifications continuing there without the cap, or a stay, in place may push some of them above the 20 percent cap agreed on. By the time council votes on an updated STVR ordinance, we have the potential for 27 wards out of 50 (54 percent) to already be over the cap.

My motion for the 90-day stay on any new certificates was intended to prevent this continuing proliferation during the time necessary to enact the proposal agreed upon. To say, as you did, the stay would have unfairly penalized anyone making financial decisions to invest in this commercial enterprise shows a lack of understanding of the permitting process. Whether we enact a stay or simply eventually approve a future ordinance revision, at some point there will be a change in issuing certificates. At any time, when any permitting process is changed (not just vacation rental certificates), anyone who can show they were actively pursuing something that would have been their right before the change is protected from that change.

If the stakeholder process led to true comity between the different participants arriving at this compromise, then all would agree to allow the Tourism office to begin immediately following the spirit of the agreement in issuing new certificates. However, an item from the NextDoor.com Savannah Historic District neighborhood forum, posted by a vacation rental proprietor pressing an effort to punish the Downtown and Victorian Neighborhood Associations, and the organizations’ individual board members, for their participation in the stakeholder process, should make clear there are some who will never agree to anything but unlimited rights to do as they please.

The next inevitable step in these negotiations will be a demand by vacation rental operators to be allowed in residential areas where the activity is currently prohibited. One thing residents in other parts of town will rightly insist on is participation in the decision of whether to allow that use.

That is a point often forgotten when referring to the Landmark, Victorian, and Mid-City districts. In 2014, when the City started looking at how to manage vacation rentals, decision-makers immediately jumped to the second question, “How do we regulate this use?” completely skipping the first question, “Do we allow this use?” The City arbitrarily decided to add the vacation rental use to any area where inns were already allowed, conflating the very different character of those two transient activities. Inns and B&Bs must get a CoA, and submit to health and safety inspections, among other regulations which, by state law, cannot be applied to residential properties. So, in the urban core, a use was added to zoning without any opportunity for downtown residents to weigh in.

The frustrating irony is the downtown residents create the product that brings people here to visit through the care of their homes and the creation of the neighborhoods where people want to stay.

Bill Durrence is the city alderman for Savannah’s 2nd District, which includes much of the city’s Historic District.

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