Homeowner responds to BOC appealing ruling
By Stephanie Johns
Christine May said she will probably be asking for about $80,000 in damages in light of the news that Morgan County Commissioners have voted to appeal the judge’s ruling regarding her lawsuit.
According to information provided in an e-mail by May’s attorney, Wilson DuBose, “Rather than appealing Judge Wingfield’s decision, the county should abide by that decision and permit her to freely use her property as she is entitled to do, without intimidation and threat of criminal prosecution.”
May sued the county regarding the county’s zoning ordinance. In December Ocmulgee Judicial District Superior Court Judge Hugh Wingfield ruled in favor of one of several claims May raised in her lawsuit.
DuBose wrote, “… the trial judge ruled in favor of the homeowner, Christine May, on the central issue of the case – whether Ms. May could continue to rent her lake home after the 2010 passage of a zoning amendment that prohibited rentals of private residences in certain zoning districts for less than 30 days.”
May said that one of her claims was that the county’s zoning ordinance is unconstitutional.
What was decided in court dealt with long- and short-term rentals, she said, adding that there was no definition of ‘short-term rental’ and no restrictions on record when she began renting.
“I’ve been renting since 2008,” she said. “I’m grandfathered.”
May contends that the ordinance does not apply to her and so the judge did not rule either way.
County attorney Christian Henry shared via e-mail that “the judge did not agree with her that the new ordinance is unconstitutional. In my opinion, that means the new ordinance is therefore constitutional.”
May said she has a single-family residence that she usually rents to families.
Henry, again via e-mail, wrote that “The reason the County contended that her short term rentals were not allowed under the old zoning ordinance is because her zoning district is “Residential,” and residences (i.e. where people reside – intend to remain permanently) are allowed, but commercial uses are not.”
Henry added, “A temporary, short-term, vacation rental is not a residence. Thus, short-term rentals were not allowed, even under the old ordinance. Of course, the judge disagreed with our position on that one issue, but he didn’t disagree with us on any of our other positions.”
DuBose wrote that the trial judge rejected the contention that May’s rental of her home before the enactment of the ordinance change was illegal even under the old ordinance.
“In fact, the county’s own documents show that the entire reason for the enactment of the ordinance amendment was because the old ordinance did not define or prohibit short-term rentals of residential properties,” he wrote.
As to the length of her rentals, May said that she does not have nightly rentals.
She contends that when the county chose 30 days as a minimum for short-term rentals, it was arbitrarily picked.
“People don’t rent for a month or 30 days,” she said, adding that they get a week for vacation, maybe two.
County Planning Director Chuck Jarrell said that there was another case where someone was renting out their home as a vacation rental. That case went to the magistrate judge who determined the definition of “short-term.”
Also, May said that she has two acres of property that includes a 40- to 50-foot stretch of beach and a dock in deep water for renters to use.
Regarding the trespass allegation, May said her son’s dog went onto her neighbor’s property one time.
May said only one neighbor complained about her renting her property.
“People pay a lot of money to rent my home,” she said. “They are very, very desirable people to have here.”
May noted that large cities spend millions of dollars building facilities for visitors. She contends that her rental home brings in revenue and increases property values for the county.
When asked if she had pursued a business license or looked into the county’s zoning regulations prior to renting out her home in 2008, May said that “everybody knew I planned to rent the house” from her builder to the realtor.
“I was not quiet about that,” she said. “It was my second home and I planned to rent.”
She contends that, “You can’t have a restriction when no one knows about it” and that “Nothing was enforced. It didn’t exist.”
Regarding enforcement, Jarrell said that May was probably sent a letter of violation that were followed up with phone calls.
May estimated that of the 18 building lots on her road, four are permanent homes and “all others are second homes.”
“This is an area of second vacation homes,” she said, adding that she rents her home to help pay for it. “It’s not a choice. I must rent it.”
May said she is going to seek damages to include attorney’s fees, lost rental income, grief and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages.
DuBose wrote, “… the trial judge did not award monetary damages to Ms. May, but only because the court believed the damages claim was ‘moot’ in light of his ruling that Ms. May could continue to rent her property for any length of time, in spite of the county’s attempt to prohibit such rentals.”
Printed in the January 17, 2013 edition.