The Mobile City Council delayed until at least next week a vote on an ordinance that would require owners of short-term rental properties to apply for and receive a city-issued business license.
As it stands under the current draft, the new ordinance would require owners of homes and apartments used for Airbnb and other short-term rental services to get a business license, Councilwoman Gina Gregory said. Gregory serves as chairwoman of the council’s administrative services committee, which hosted a public hearing with owners weeks ago. There are other minor regulations in the ordinance, Gregory added.
At issue during a somewhat lengthy debate among councilors at a pre-conference meeting Tuesday was how this ordinance would apply to short-term rentals that aren’t owner-occupied.
As of right now, current short-term rental owners would not be required to undergo a zoning check before receiving a license. However, future owners applying for a business license would have to go through the check, council attorney Chris Arledge said.
The roughly 50-year-old zoning ordinance currently in use by the city does not regulate short-term rentals and any zoning restrictions would have to be added, Arledge said. Under the current zoning code, any “nonconforming use,” which would apply to short-term rentals, could be determined by zoning officials, Arledge said.
“It really needs to be addressed in the zoning ordinance,” Arledge said.
He and Gregory argued the short-term rental ordinance would be a separate law. However, Councilwoman Bess Rich said she saw it differently. She said the New Orleans ordinance looked very similar to what Mobile is trying to do, but the law there had to be changed when large corporations bought houses specifically to be used as short-term rentals.
Rich would like to see business licenses for short-term rentals only approved for residential zones where the property is owner-occupied. Otherwise, it needs to be considered a hotel, she said. Rich said she is trying to prevent companies from buying up multiple homes in a neighborhood and turning them into short-term rentals.
“Again, it’s the neighborhood integrity that matters to all of us,” Rich said. “How is this part of a zoning issue? Why can’t it be a qualification for a license?”
Gregory said a change to the ordinance of that magnitude would require more conversations with the same short-term rental representatives who spoke at a previous administrative services committee meeting.
“I understand where Bess is coming from, but making a zoning change is not what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Councilman Joel Daves said the question the council is facing can ultimately be answered by Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration. It comes down to the procedure taken in the city’s zoning office, Daves said, and how the office will likely view a non-owner-occupied house used exclusively for a short-term rental property.
“My point is if I come in and buy a house … and want to turn it into a short-term rental, someone is going to have to make a determination on zoning,” he said. “We need to understand how the city will view it. We don’t know that. Because if they’re going to view it as whoever asks for a business license can go wherever they want to go, then we’re going to be dealing with a lot of those pre-existing uses and I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
In other business, the Mobile City Council approved the closure of a portion of two streets downtown to allow Mobile Metro Jail officials to expand its sally port and harden its misdemeanor barracks, among other changes. The closures impact portions of Conception and St. Emmanuel streets near the jail.
During a pre-conference meeting, Councilman John Williams had entertained the idea of not voting on the issue and letting Stimpson use his administrative authority to close the streets, but ultimately, councilors unanimously approved the move.
The expansion is expected to cost the county $13 million and would also alleviate issues with passersby leaving contraband in one of the jail’s exercise yards, Sheriff Sam Cochran said in a previous interview with Lagniappe.
“Right now, you could walk up to the sally port,” he said. “People come there and throw things over the fence into the exercise yards. We really don’t need the street open.”
The council also voted to layover an amended ordinance dealing with food truck regulations until Tuesday, Dec. 15.
During his comments at the meeting, Stimpson announced the city had received a $742,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to help set up a mental health rapid response team. The majority of the funding, about $600,000, would be going to AltaPointe Health Systems to allow mental health professionals to provide assistance to the police on calls involving someone with mental health issues. The other $142,000 in funding would be used for in-service training of Mobile Police Department officers, Stimpson said.
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