All but one member of the city of Charleston's Short-Term Rental Task Force agreed Tuesday that vacation rentals should be allowed in neighborhoods across the city, as long as there is a different set of restrictions for homes in the old and historic districts.
The decision came after the group heard more than an hour's worth of comments from about a dozen residents who mostly lived downtown. While some said they wanted to expand the area where short-term rentals are allowed, many others complained that there are already too many illegal rentals in their neighborhoods, which they said threatens their quality of life.
"It is a neighborhood-destroying phenomenon," said Jerry Smith, who lives in the Charlestowne Neighborhood on the peninsula.
Owners of short-term rentals, however, such as Mara Brockbank of Harleston Village, said the income from renting their homes helps them afford to stay in their neighborhoods and maintain their historic homes.
"It really is expensive," Brockbank said.
About an hour before the meeting, the online vacation rental company HomeAway released the results of a local survey indicating that Charleston residents support allowing the rentals in all parts the city.
HomeAway's survey found that 51 percent of the 574 Charleston residents surveyed indicated they would support legalizing short-term rentals such as HomeAway, Airbnb and VRBO across the city, while 33 percent opposed it and 16 percent said they were unsure.
However, several Charleston residents who spoke at the task force's meeting questioned whether that survey was accurate.
Randy Pelzer, vice president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, said a group of neighborhood associations including Harleston Village and Ansonborough agreed they do not support an expansion of the zone where short-term rentals are allowed.
He said a petition circulating in those neighborhoods had garnered nearly 500 signatures.
Pelzer said they want the city to "enforce the existing law and stop the blatant violation of our zoning laws."
The task force is a group of residents and business stakeholders that is looking at ways to better regulate the booming short-term rental industry. The group has three more meetings to discuss changes to the short-term rental ordinance before it sends the recommendations to the planning staff by the end of the year.
Short-term rentals are allowed on commercially zoned properties within the accommodations overlay zone and in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood on the peninsula.
Property owners are supposed to get a license from the city before booking any guests, but Zoning Administrator Lee Batchelder said at the meeting that the proliferation of illegal short-term rentals has made it nearly impossible for the city to enforce those rules.
The task force motioned to send a proposal to City Council to consider ways to improve the enforcement.
Earlier in the meeting, an official from Expedia — the parent company of HomeAway and VRBO — said the company would like to comply with the city's future regulations, whatever they may be.
"We want regulations in place," said Joseph Montano, the company's Northeast government affairs official. "That's why we've come to the table to find regulations that work for everyone."
He didn't specify the types of regulations the company might support, but he mentioned that other cities have had success requiring property owners to publish their municipal business license numbers on their profiles on online booking platforms.
HomeAway's survey was conducted Aug. 2-4 by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning organization.