Thomas Realty beach house

A Thomas Realty beach house in Windy Hill. Photo by Christian Boschult

Imagine moving into a quiet residential neighborhood, only to have the house next door turn into a business overnight, with new neighbors moving in and out every few weeks.

Trash piling up, loud parties, and streets cramped with too many parked cars are some of the problems that come up when a single-family home becomes a revolving door for tourists seeking a beach vacation. And of course, you never know who your neighbors are. 

Dixon and Dee Withers-Julian have lived on Metts Drive in North Myrtle Beach for more than 9 years. For the past year, they’ve lived next door to an Airbnb in their Pinewood Acres neighborhood between Highway 17 and Grand Strand Airport. It's an R-1 zoned neighborhood, defined as low-density, single-family residential.

“To us, short-term rentals do not fit in this zoning category," said Dixon Withers-Julian in an email. "Apartments are not even allowed in this neighborhood zoning. In effect, these rentals are little motels, available to anyone who wants a short stay. People who come to the beach for a short stay are in party mode. This does not mesh well with a neighborhood of single-family homes."

For months, city officials in North Myrtle Beach have been mulling over what to do about the city’s largely unregulated and fast-growing short-term rental industry and the problems that come with it. The city is in the process of developing an ordinance to get the industry under control. 

“Overall, we don’t have a large problem with short-term rentals,” said councilor Hank Thomas, whose real estate company operates short-term rental units. “However, there are occasions like spring break, we have house parties. You have 50 kids in a house where you should have 12 to 15 people. That probably represents 1 percent of the short-term rental business, but causes [most of] the headaches.”

Council met in executive session on February 7 to receive legal advice as part of their effort to come up with an ordinance. Afterwards, a workshop tentatively scheduled for the following Wednesday was scrapped and another executive session was held on Friday.

“There’s a ton of issues,” said North Myrtle Beach councilor Nikki Fontana, who represents the Windy Hill and Barefoot neighborhoods. “That’s why we called another executive session. It’s kind of confusing to everyone right now. We’re figuring out which way to go.”

Trash is another big problem that Dixon and Dee Withers-Julian have dealt with at the rental next door.

“They couldn’t get the trash picked up and the garbage cans overflowed,” Dee said. Added Dixon, “It can sit there for a while. You can’t expect people from out of town to know when trash day is.”

David and Mary Watkins built their house two doors down from Dixon and Dee on the other side of the Airbnb more than 20 years ago. The new owned fixed up the “eyesore” – to use David’s words – when he bought the house, which was an improvement. But the Watkins still built an 8-foot fence between their property and the rental to make sure strangers couldn’t look into their bathroom. 

“Really, we haven’t had a lot of issues, but we just don’t know what we’re getting,” David Watkins said. “When you buy into a neighborhood like this, you think you know your neighbors.”

During the public comment period after the February 7 meeting, the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors got the first word in what’s likely to be a well-rounded debate about the rights of property owners and the amount of control the city can exercise over what it sees as unregulated businesses. The city has not yet proposed any ordinance to regulate the rentals.

“The fact that an owner may receive rental income from their property is not, in any way, inconsistent with the property being used as a residence,” CCAR wrote in a news release distributed during the meeting. “Any ordinance that prohibits property owners from renting their homes, or significantly restricts the right to rent, strips them of one-third of their fundamental bundle of economically productive rights – the right to live in a property, rent it and to sell it.” 

To be clear, the city isn’t trying to kill the short-term rental industry that supports the backbone of the city’s economy: tourism. And neither is the city trying ban renting in neighborhoods. But rental properties serve inherently different functions than single-family homes with long-term residents. 

The city says it's issued 4,399 business license for short-term rentals. Of those, 400 are single-family homes.

"You don’t want to kill that, but at the same time, as people catch on to this new system of rentals and making money, one week you’re living in a single-family neighborhood surrounded by single-family houses, and the next week, one in the middle or to the side suddenly becomes a short-term rental and 20 or 30 people show up," said North Myrtle Beach spokesman Pat Dowling. "We get the call.”

Oftentimes, the city doesn’t find out about a property being converted to a rental unit until staff or councilors field calls from annoyed neighbors, at which point the city tells the owners they need to get a business license. 

“They’re dealing with issues such as noise, parties, trash; stuff that they’re not used to dealing with,” Fontana said.

But from there, the city doesn’t have a lot of say in the matter, aside from enforcing certain parking ordinances.

“Whatever we do is complaint-driven, so it’s kind of reactionary,” Dowling said. “We just need a comprehensive document that they will know, ‘Okay, you’re going to short-term rental, here’s what you need to do, and here are the parking, noise, garbage collection and other things you need to adhere to.’ That’s beneficial for them, it’s beneficial for the city and it stops these sort[s] of skirmishes or sudden meltdowns. Everybody understands the path and it’s clear.”

Another point of contention – and a big reason for the multiple executive sessions – is fire safety, with regulations governed by multiple codes including the South Carolina Building Code and the South Carolina Residential Code. The city is grappling with deciding which properties it can require to have fire sprinklers.

“I think there’s a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding about the fire codes,” Thomas said. “Most of them in the single-family duplexes and townhouses are not required to be sprinkled.  

“A residential house is built on a certain code, and in that code, it does allow for rentals. That’s part of the misunderstanding. There’s two sets of building codes for two different sets of property. Our beach houses fall under the residential building code. They’re allowed to be rented; they’re not considered transient properties. They’re allowed to be rented and not sprinkled.”

One- and two-family dwellings are not required to have fire sprinklers, said Lesia Kudelka, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. 

But those same houses, when rented, are sometimes filled with dozens of people, and the city has a vested interest in limiting its liability in case of a fire that causes injuries. The city has hired an outside law firm to help it decide which codes take precedence, and which properties the city can require to be sprinkled.

“It’s fairly murky from a legal point of view,” Dowling said. “What is a true interpretation of all of the codes? Which one rules? What does it really apply to? At this point… nobody really has a firm foundation or a firm legal basis on which to move forward.”

Ultimately, the city wants to come up with a comprehensive ordinance governing all the aspects of short-term rental properties. 

Fontana said the city will do its best to find a solution amenable to all stakeholders.

“We’re trying to look at all the issues and trying to address each one and do the best that we can as a council to see what fits our community and our city as a whole,” Fontana said. “We want to try to do what’s best for everyone.” 

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