Auburn residents and officials have been debating short-term rentals for a long time.
The issue first caught the eye of citizens and city staff in 2013, when residential homes in Auburn started popping up on the websites of companies such as Airbnb and VRBO. These homes became popular lodging options for people visiting town for Auburn University football games, graduations and weddings.
By January of 2018, the need for the City of Auburn to establish enforceable rental guidelines was clear, and Auburn city manager Jim Buston said the city hoped to have an ordinance on short term-rentals to present to the city council “within the next six months.”
About 10 months later, the city had established a Short-Term Rental Task Force. From November of 2018 to October 2019, it held three work sessions and two public hearings before turning over its recommendations to city planning staff to write an enforceable ordinance through Auburn’s Zoning Ordinance.
The ordinance wasn’t ready in early 2020, and things slowed down when COVID-19 spread to the area in March.
Finally, on Feb. 16, 2021, the seventh draft of the ordinance reached the council for a scheduled vote, on the recommendation of the Auburn Planning Commission after four work sessions and a 7-2 vote in a special-called Jan. 25 meeting.
What happened in the Feb. 16 meeting
Auburn City Council meetings follow Robert’s Rules of Order, per Section 2-4 of the City Code of the City of Auburn.
Public hearings come before council discussion of the scheduled vote.
On Feb. 16, the city manager, Megan McGowen Crouch, read the proposed ordinance agenda item title. Then a councilperson introduced the ordinance and another councilperson seconded the motion. The council was asked if it had any problems moving forward with a vote.
All permanent ordinances must be approved by unanimous consent of all members of the council present in order to be considered for passage and voted upon on that first reading, according to Section 2-41(m) of the City Code of the City of Auburn. If it receives unanimous consent and is voted upon on that first reading, it only needs a majority to pass.
Unanimous consent was needed for a first reading, and a roll call vote occurred. Once the roll call vote for unanimous consent passed, the public hearing was opened.
Twenty-one Auburn residents spoke. When they were finished, one councilperson moved for approval and another council person seconded to move for approval. Councilpersons then discussed the agenda item. This is when councilpersons can move to amend.
Section 2-41(o) states that any council member can propose a new ordinance or amendment to an existing ordinance.
That’s when Ward 3 and Mayor Pro Tem Beth Witten presented these four amendments to the existing proposed ordinance:
- Make homestays city-wide minus the Industrial zone and South College Corridor District.
- Reduce the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule to two strikes.
- Limit homestay owner absences from 120 to 90 days.
- Prohibit commercial and special events from homestays.
The first amendment is the most controversial because it adds neighborhoods zoned NC, or Neighborhood Conservation, the district in Auburn with the most vocal opposition to short-term rentals.
Throughout council discussion on Feb. 16, procedural questions arose among council persons as to what they were voting on, and what they would be voting on at the March 16 council meeting.
“You can take things away, but you can’t add new layers of things that people weren’t expecting,” Crouch advised the council during the meeting.
Ward 6 Councilperson and former Short-Term Rental Task Force member Bob Parson’s proposed an amendment to exclude NC zones from the amendment package but it failed in a vote of 5 to 3. The Auburn City Council voted 5 to 3 to approve Witten’s four amendments to the ordinance. Because the amendments fundamentally changed the ordinance, namely the amendment that would include NC neighborhoods, city manager Megan McGowen Crouch and city attorney Rick Davidson advised the council to postpone the vote on the amended ordinance.
An past example
Amendments are frequently made by the council, as when the number of beds allowed in large student apartment developments was cut by a third in November.
A prime example of how council action can be slowed down by debate is the issue of the maximum height of downtown buildings.
An Urban Core Task Force was formed in 2006 and found that the existing downtown 60-foot height limit could not accommodate nonresidential uses within a typical five-story building. The task force proposed increasing the building height to 66 feet in the Urban Core and College Edge Overlay District, which covers the core of downtown Auburn. The Auburn City Council adopted these recommendations in 2007.
In 2009, the Auburn Chamber of Commerce Commercial Business Focus Group filed a report with then-Mayor Bill Ham identifying challenges to development, and Ham appointed a Downtown Study Committee, which recommended raising the building height to 75 feet. The Auburn City Council adopted the recommendations in 2010.
The city of Auburn initiated the Downtown Master Plan in 2013, which recommended that the maximum building height remain at 75 feet, and the council adopted the plan in 2015. The council approved zoning amendments for the Downtown Master Plan, lowering the height in the CEOD to 65 feet.
At its April 3, 2018, meeting, the council voted to increase the allowable building height in downtown Auburn from 65 feet to 75 feet.
The current city council was sworn into office in fall 2018.
Another scheduled vote
The City has since re-advertised the proposed ordinance for short-term rentals, which includes the four amendments, and the city council is expected to vote on the regulations at its March 16 meeting. The council will meet virtually at 6:55 p.m. The meeting will follow the same format, with a public hearing before council discussion, and is expected to run long. The Feb. 16 meeting lasted about four hours.
“We’ve been talking about this and studying this for a number of years; it’s going to be very difficult for us to get this right the first time, but we’re trying,” Mayor Ron Anders said during his recorded Mayor’s Minutes the day after the Feb. 16 meeting. “We want to try to get it right and get it in place in time for this upcoming Auburn football season, which we hope will function and look like all the great Auburn football seasons of the past.”
For more information on short-term rentals in the City of Auburn, visit the City of Auburn’s short-term rental page at auburnalabama.org/short-term-rentals/.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify a point about unanimous consent and first readings. All permanent ordinances must be approved by unanimous consent of all members of the council present in order to be considered for passage and voted upon on that first reading, according to Section 2-41(m) of the City Code of the City of Auburn. If it receives unanimous consent and is voted upon on that first reading, it only needs a majority to pass.