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City Council, April 10

Short Term Rental Ordinance passes
But Special Exceptions may lessen its bite
Marc Knapp

The City’s new Short Term Rental (RTR) ordinance passed second and third readings on Tuesday. It was not an easy passage and it would be wrong to assume that Council is done with the ordinance. A committee of staff and Council members was tasked to consider a number of issues or special exceptions. The recommendations will need to be considered by the Planning Commission but Council expects the Special Exception addendum will be before Council within 90 days. These amendments could be significant in our view, and considerably loosen and complicate STR requirements.

When the STR ordinance came before Council, Council member Seekings motioned approval. But a lot of words flowed before the vote was taken. The vote came late in the meeting – nearly 5 hours after it began. Council members were weary, and probably frustrated that new issues were raised. Some members spoke long and repetitively. Council members Lewis and Mitchell a number of times signaled their hostility to the ordinance, more related to the policing than its contents. Council member Waring stubbornly protested the need for more legal staff for enforcement and prosecution. And then other Council members weighed in with concerns. It was mayhem, and it seemed to us that any consensus that existed prior to the meeting was dissipated.

We think the Mayor recognized the likely failure of passing the ordinance and/or a meeting that could go on for hours. He called for a break. We are not sure what happened during this break but we observed clusters of members in deep discussion.

Back from the break, Council coalesced into an agreement that the ordinance should be given its final readings but that the Special Exceptions suggested by Council members and the public should be considered. A Committee of staff and Council members Seekings, Waring, Jackson and Mitchell would make the deliberations. Their recommendations were to go to the Planning Commission and be back to Council before the end of the 90 day period projected for implementing the ordinance.

The items for discussion were

    Whole house rentals
    Allowing rentals on properties taxed at 6%
    STRs of residential space above commercial property not in the STR overlay
    Moving boundaries of Categories (a.k.a Classes)
    Loosening the requirement on Category 1 properties that they be on the National Register of Historic Places
    Allowing citizens, such as the lady who lived on James Island and spoke in Citizens Participation, who may be in breach of the ordinance but did no harm, to operate an STR

Staff was not happy about Special Exceptions. It was hard to draft an ordinance to include such, and certainly not in time for the next Council meeting. However, it was given no choice and its pain will be shared with the four Council members.

We share staff’s view that defining special exceptions is not easy. Does all commercial property qualify for STR in its residential space? Allowing STR rentals in Residential property taxed at 6% effectively removes a limit cap on the days rented (The ordinance allows STR on residential properties taxed at 4%. But to qualify for the lower tax, rentals must not exceed 72 days a year according to State Law). Accommodating citizens such as the lady from James Island may drive a large hole through the ordinance. Maybe the simple solution will be to leave it up to the BZA to determine the Special Exceptions and on the basis of perceived harm.

Viewers can see a copy of the ordinance passed last night by pressing here. As instructed, staff tidied parking requirements and opined that they were now the same for all Categories – one parking space for each STR as well as maintaining the parking space requirements under its City zoning. There were other minor adjustments.

Council also decided last night that the STRs in residential areas would be called Categories and not Classses.

We are not sure that the Ansonborough neighborhood got what they were looking for. It was unhappy about the proposed hotel development on the large lot, now used for parking, at the corner of Market and Anson Streets. Before Council last night was a proposal to convey a right of way (ROW) (aka Hayne Street) that runs through the property to the owners. The owners have the right to build two 50 room hotels on the lot but have indicated a desire, after acquiring the ROW from the City, to lift the room count to over 130 and add another story to the structure.

Council member White was not happy with the developer and the likely consideration for the conveyance. He wanted a deferral and for the developer to submit a plan and drawings that reflected only what the present zoning allowed. So far, the plans released by the developer assume the ROW conveyance, and approval for variances and exceptions that would be necessary to achieve the higher room count.

The Council member’s request for a deferral was granted but clearly Council was frustrated about the delays to the review and approval process. The issue over the conveyance had already been deferred a year ago. Something was going to be built on this valuable site. It may not be what the developer hopes as the review process would take the project through the BZA, BAR and other bodies. There was no guarantee that the developer would receive the variances and approvals it hoped for.

From the way he spoke, the Mayor was in favor of a hotel development and working with the owner. He said conveying the ROW in consideration for the provision of more public space on the site, facilitating underground wiring, and mitigating flooding was positive. He also spoke of the possibility that the developer would make a contribution to Affordable Housing. Council member Waring also expressed fears that the project could shape up like Sergeant Jasper - held up by a neighborhood opposed to any development.

It was generally agreed that the deferral was for only a short period. The project should move forward and its scope and size needed to face scrutiny and review, by the public and the City boards and Commissions.