Beaufort looks at rules for vacation rentals

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By Lisa Allen

There haven’t been any problems with short-term rentals in downtown Beaufort, and the city wants to keep it that way.

The city appointed a task force last year to study short-term rentals. Its tasks were to recommend an approval process, anticipate any problems that could occur and suggest rules that would head them off.

“The two primary concerns are public safety and preserving neighborhood integrity and character,” said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. “There are no documented problems, but people assume there will be problems.”

Up until about three years ago, short-term rentals were permitted only in properties that were zoned commercial. Then Airbnb and VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner) came along. 

“The city woke up a couple of years ago and realized that people were operating short-term rentals in areas not zoned for that,” Keyserling said. 

The city quickly required people to request zoning exceptions before the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

“We didn’t give them enough guidelines. It was arbitrary. If a neighbor objected, it was rejected. If no one complained, they were granted,” Keyserling said.

Thus the 11-member task force was created. 

Primarily using online portals, the task force found just over 50 short-term rentals scattered throughout the city, with noticeable numbers in Pigeon Point, Old Commons and the Northwest Quadrant. (Old Point prohibits short-term rentals.)  

When the city found some lacking business licenses, they contacted the owners and they quickly complied. Short-term rental properties are required to get business licenses and collect and remit occupancy and sales taxes.

After 10 public meetings, the task force submitted 12 recommendations for proposed ordinances. City staffers will draft the ordinances and submit them to the Beaufort-Port Royal Metropolitan Planning Commission for consideration. 

The task force’s March report noted, “We hope that (Beaufort City) Council and the public will recognize that short term rental in residential neighborhoods is a new and rapidly evolving phenomenon, and that predictions on what the impact will be are difficult to make.”

The task force also advised that “the current system should not be structured so that every proposal for a short term rental turns into a contest about whether short term rentals are a good or bad idea. … We strongly urge that council set a policy that is administered and enforced by staff. The present “approval by exception” method of zoning board review can lead to rearguing the desirability of short term rentals over and over for each application. We believe this is inefficient and unhealthy for the community.”

The task force’s recommendations included:

• Each rental must have a contact person that can respond to the city or the guests within three hours.

• Occupancy is limited to two people per bedroom.

• No more than one car per bedroom. Vehicles must be parked on a driveway, not in yards, on grass or in the street.

The task force also recommended that short-term rentals be limited to no more than 8 percent of the total lots in a neighborhood. Given there is little data on short-term rentals, the percentage was a guesstimate, Keyserling said.

“I assume it was because it was more than 5 percent and less than 10,” Keyserling said. “The biggest threat was changing the character of a neighborhood,” Keyserling said. 

The task force also recommends that the city submit an annual report on short-term rentals to ensure no unforeseen problems have arisen and to review whether the ordinances are working as intended.

The task force emphasized that short-term rentals are good for the community because they draw a new type of tourist who prefers that type of lodging. Many are potential future residents that want to try out a residential setting. They noted that they heard no concerns from hoteliers. 

“These are small businesses. As people restore old homes and use rentals to pay for it, it helps the entire neighborhood,” Keyserling said.