Whether or not one believes the official 12 million tourists-a-year figure, the fact remains that Savannah is an increasingly popular tourist destination with the growing pains to prove it.
Along with a multitude of high-profile hotels catering to the influx—some of which are asking for, and getting, extraordinary regulatory variances—has come the phenomenon of vacation rentals downtown. They’ve raised concerns from residents who feel the properties aren’t being regulated enough by the City of Savannah.
As if in answer to their prayers, the City and the Metropolitan Planning Commission concocted a remarkable draft ordinance last week attempting to do just that—in a manner which has some vacation rental operators puzzled.
“There’s nothing wrong with having licensing. But if you’re going to ask people to apply for a business tax certificate then treat them like business owners,” says Tanya Bailey-Smith, who owns a vacation rental in the space above the Great Savannah Auto Races Museum she operates off Lafayette Square.
“The proposed new ordinance sounds more like something a soccer mom puts on the fridge to get the kids to do chores. It’s not how a city should be reaching out to potential new business owners,” she says.
Specifically, Bailey-Smith refers to an unusual points system which docks vacation rental owners a certain number of points for noise, parking, and behavioral violations based on the subjective judgment of a “Tourism Administrator.”
“When a property owner has accumulated sixteen or more points for a particular property within a period of twelve consecutive months, or twenty-four points within a period of twenty-four consecutive months, the City shall revoke any pending certificates and reject all applications for the subject premises for a period of twelve consecutive months,” the draft reads.
Another section calls for “a detailed sketch of the premises, including floor and site plan, square footage, number of bedrooms, kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool, fire extinguishers and parking areas.”
A seemingly needless paragraph requires “The occupant(s)’ acknowledgement that it shall be unlawful to allow or make any noise or sound that exceeds the limits set forth in the City’s noise ordinance.”
The City and MPC will hold two meeting over the next couple of weeks to gather input. Bailey-Smith is hoping some changes will be made.
“It’s good that it has some order to it, but the things that are hostile and punitive need to be removed,” she says, recalling a recent experience at a Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting where the vacation rental ordinance was being discussed in detail.
“One woman said right to my face, ‘I don’t like people moving here from other places.’ I was stunned,” Bailey-Smith says.
With years of property management experience under her belt in her native Canada, Bailey-Smith says not only do vacation rentals bring in nearly $10 million a year to the local economy, their clientele is precisely the most desired one: Educated, more affluent, and more open to the idea of moving and possibly opening businesses here.
“There are two types of tourists that come into Savannah,” Bailey-Smith says. “Traditional tourists who like to go to hotels and motels, and those who like to go somewhere and live like a local. They tend to be more experiential—I’d say about 20 percent of my customers are not only visiting Savannah, but thinking about moving to Savannah.”
“The public will have ample opportunity to review and provide feedback on the draft,” assures City of Savannah Public Information Director Bret Bell.
“Based on that feedback, the document will change before being presented to City Council during workshop. The document will likely change again based on feedback we get from council at workshop,” he says.
“And then the public will have an opportunity to provide input once again during first and second readings during regular City Council meetings.”
Richard Bartels has been among those who’d like to see the City do more to regulate vacation rentals and make sure their owners are on a level playing field with other segments of the industry.
“I haven’t seen the ordinance yet, but I have no problem with vacation rentals as long as it’s what it says in the code,” he says. “You have to live on the property. You can’t rent your house and leave at night and say that’s a B&B.”
Bailey-Smith says she isn’t opposed to vacation rental owners having to play by the rules, but maintains there’s no reason to single out her business sector.
“They keep talking about the noise ordinance, but those kinds of violations can occur with anyone. It’s ridiculous to try and pin all noise and nuisance on vacation rentals, which take up a tiny amount of residences downtown, compared to fulltime rentals or owners,” she says.
Besides, she says, if there’s a noise problem there’s always something you can do about it:
“Everyone has a remedy already available: The non-emergency police number. There are already regulations on the books for the City and Chatham County. If there are frequent problems you can be fined.
“They are asking us to take disproportionate responsibility.”