HOT SPRINGS -- Justices of the peace said the short-term rental registry county officials have proposed creates a slippery slope, one that could lead to overly burdensome regulations that should be the purview of a homeowners association rather than county government.
County Judge Darryl Mahoney proposed the registry when justices of the peace first took up the issue of short-term rentals in the unincorporated area in May, telling the Quorum Court that the county's public safety and sanitation departments need to know the addresses of short-term rentals and have the owner or agent's contact information.
The registry would be similar to what's included in the short-term rental ordinance the Hot Springs Board of Directors adopted in May. Such rentals in the city are now required to register, providing the city with contact information for an agent who can be on site within an hour of receiving a complaint.
But justices of the peace told the Garland County Quorum Court Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee on Monday night that a registry would give government the license to impose a comprehensive regulatory scheme similar to what the city of Hot Springs adopted.
"Registration is the first step toward regulation," Justice of the Peace Jeremy Brown told the committee.
Justice of the Peace Matt McKee said a registry could eventually expose short-term rentals to penalties hotels and other commercial lodging establishments might face.
"Creating a registration process or a licensing process is going to open the door for the county or state to shut you down if they deem it necessary," he told a short-term rental owner who spoke during the public input session Monday night.
Steve Faris told the committee that the six-bedroom house next to his home in a cul-de-sac off Thornton Ferry Road is being marketed as a hotel on Airbnb, turning a single-family home into a "party venue."
"We had a frat party with 30 cars on the road," he said. "People were walking on my property. I shouldn't have to go over there and tell those people to get off my property. It should be [the owner's] responsibility. They've taken every inch of space that's available and put beds in there. There's no way, in my opinion, that 16 guests should be allowed to stay in a single-family home."
Brown noted that the home could host up to 14 people if it were subject to occupancy limits established by the city's ordinance, which allows two guests per bedroom and two additional guests.
Committee Chairman Larry Raney said the county code doesn't address zoning or planning, limiting the county's regulatory authority.
"The only thing that can protect your property is a homeowners association that has a good set of rules that they enforce," he told Faris. "There hasn't been a need for that, so most of them haven't developed them or haven't revisited them in years. We don't have any rules and regulations that would allow us to address them. We can reexamine our current ordinances and how they might be expanded or used and take a look at whatever else we might have to address this."
Justices of the peace told Faris that if his subdivision has a bill of assurance or set of property-use restrictions, they could possibly be used to impose limits on short-term rentals in his neighborhood.
"I feel like us having to go out and hire a lawyer and pay out of our own money to stop this kind of stuff from happening isn't fair," Faris said. "We just need to put some rules in place and make these people play by them."
Quorum Court members heard from a Northshore Drive homeowner last month who received a Garland County Circuit Court injunction against a short-term rental in his neighborhood. The complaint cited the subdivision's 1953 bill of assurance, which stated that lots shall not be used for commercial purposes, "including motels, tourist courts, motor hotels, hotels, garage apartments, apartments, etc."
The injunction was overturned on appeal to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the bill of assurance's lack of a specific restriction against rentals allows short-term rentals to operate in the subdivision.
Brown told the homeowners who spoke Monday that he could sympathize with having a bad neighbor. He complained to the county about an off-road park that hosted a concert/campout next to his home in the winter of 2018. The county said about 2,000 people were on the property, creating crowd and traffic problems for public safety personnel and loud disturbances for nearby property owners.
Brown advised the speakers to call the sheriff's office if short-term rental guests are trespassing or violating the county's noise ordinance.
"Call the sheriff," he said. "Call 15 times in a row if you have to. There are avenues to be heard, but be heard by those who can help you today."