County to appeal decision
By Stephanie Johns
Following a closed session Tuesday morning, the Morgan County Commission voted to appeal a decision by Ocmulgee Judicial District Superior Court Judge Hugh Wingfield.
In December Wingfield ruled in favor of one of several claims Christine May raised in her zoning lawsuit, but ruled in the county’s favor on the rest.
County attorney Christian Henry said that the end result is that May gets to keep renting out the house but she does not get damages or attorney fees.
“And our ordinance is not unconstitutional,” he said.
Morgan County Manager Michael Lamar said this all began when May rented out a house at Lake Oconee as a vacation rental. The county considered this a violation of their zoning ordinance.
County Planning Director Chuck Jarrell said that the county asked May to “cease and desist.”
“May lives out of state so catching up with her was somewhat difficult,” he said.
May in turn sued the county.
Jarrell added that May contended the house was only shared with family and friends.
“After investigations it was determined she was renting the house,” he said. “Under the ordinance, then and now, you have to live on the property as your primary residence.”
As to the details of those investigations, Jarrell said someone from his office would go and talk with the people who were in May’s house to gather information.
Henry said they videotaped someone at the house who said they were paying money to stay there and were not May’s family.
People in Jarrell’s office also found the house listed on rental websites with calendars indicating when it was booked.
Henry said the house was built in 2007. As soon as it was completed in 2008 they began getting complaints from neighbors.
Jarrell said they received more complaints during the summer months but that they did receive complaints all year round.
“This has been going on for years,” he said. Complaints include trespass, excessive noise, and disruption of neighborhood.
Henry noted that May has rented out the house through the entire litigation process.
Jarrell said they have been trying to settle this for the last three years.
“She was renting the house on a nightly and weekly basis,” he said. “Under our regulations to rent space in a home you have to be a bed and breakfast.”
Jarrell went on to say that bed and breakfasts (B&B) are a conditional use but that May was not classified as a B&B. Also, the owner of the B&B is required to use the B&B as their primary residence.
“Long-term rental is permitted,” he said, adding that ‘long-term’ generally means month-to-month. “Anything less than 30 days is considered short-term.”
Jarrell noted that the county has since adopted a short-term rental ordinance.
“But this case goes back before that,” he said, indicating that the change in ordinance is not retroactive.
Henry said that May “vehemently denied” renting out the house for money until the ordinance change. At that point she said she was doing it all along.
“She changed her tune,” he said.
The case will now go to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Henry said the court can choose whether or not to hear the case. If the court chooses to hear the case, Henry said it could take up to a year-and-a-half before a decision is made.
May was contacted Tuesday, but refused to comment.
Printed in the January 10, 2013