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Upstate cities ponder the fate of short-term rentals

This is just one of the kitchens at which short-term renters could serve breakfast in Spartanburg. At least for now. the city is debating whether to permit something its own zoning ordinnce does not expressly address.
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This is just one of the kitchens at which short-term renters could serve breakfast in Spartanburg. At least for now. the city is debating whether to permit something its own zoning ordinnce does not expressly address.

Spartanburg City’s zoning ordinance, written in 1999, does not address short-term rentals – rentals offered through Airbnb and other companies that allow guests to rent out non-hotel residences for anything from a few days to several weeks.

That is to say, the city’s zoning ordinance neither expressly allows nor forbids such rentals. But City Attorney Robert Coler says that Spartanburg’s “permissive” ordinance by default bans short-term rentals in residentially zoned areas.

“Section 501 of the ordinance says … if something is not expressly permitted, it is prohibited,” Coler said at the City Council meeting Monday. “The zoning ordinance doesn’t specifically address short-term rentals. We take an approach to say that it’s a permissive ordinance – if it’s not specifically allowed, it’s prohibited.”

Two main types of zoning ordinances are “permissive” and “prohibitive.” The former addresses uses that are allowed, meaning anything not expressly named is considered to be prohibited; the latter, the inverse, addresses uses that are specifically not allowed, meaning anything not expressly addressed could be considered permissible.

But there are, and Coler admitted as much Monday, plenty of short-term rentals in Spartanburg – around 120 were listed over six pages on Airbnb.com Thursday morning.

So the question is not so much whether people are renting out residential properties to short-term guests, it’s whether the city wants to formally put a stop to this. While Coler said that short-term rentals can be a good thing, “if they’re done correctly,” the City Council is looking to make sure that if these rentals do become unambiguously allowed in Spartanburg, permanent residents are not disturbed by guests who are just passing through.

Councilman Rob Rain argued in favor of creating rules to keep “bad actors” from causing trouble in a given neighborhood; Councilwoman Meghan Smith argued that allowing short-term rentals could rend the fabric of established neighborhoods.

Part of the issue is that Spartanburg is growing fast, and with that growth comes a rise in tourism – and tourism dollars. A 2021 report in the Upstate Business Journal cited a $174 million impact of tourism in Spartanburg County in 2016. The pandemic ate deep into those dollars, leading the county to promote its new restaurant app, Remember Your Favorites, last year to help bring diners back to the city’s and county’s blossoming restaurant scenes. And for tourists that might want to stay a week or two in the city’s growing downtown, short-term rentals could be a big draw.

But Spartanburg is not the only city trying to figure out what to do about short-term rentals. In February, Rock Hill hit the pause button on approving new short-term rental applications for six months. City Attorney Paul Dillingham said at the Feb. 14 City Council meeting that the moratorium is intended to give the city time to take “a deep dive into this issue to find out what is the best way of moving forward for the permitting, if at all, for this particular use.”

Rock Hill Council of Neighborhoods, a nonprofit organization in the city, had submitted a letter to the council that expresses concerns that “transient tenants have a negative effect on the peace and perceived safety of those neighborhoods.”

Dillingham said, “This is not completely doing away with Airbnbs or short-term rentals, it’s just to take a pause while we look at the issue.”

The move, however, triggered backlash from local property owners who say they were not informed that the city wanted to put a moratorium on new and renewed short-term rental permits. The City Council is expected to take up the issue again at an April meeting.

In November, State Representative Lee Hewitt – a Republican and Realtor representing Charleston and Georgetown – introduced a bill for this legislative session that would ban the banning of short-term rentals in South Carolina, but that bill is stalled in committee.

Addendum, March 17, 2022, 8:34 p.m. — Rock Hill’s 2020 revenue from direct tourism was estimated at a little more than $57 million: in 2021, the estimate grew to $65.7 million, according to city officials.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.