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A spirit that is not afraid

The fate of Auburn's short-term rentals

Toomer's Drugs in downtown Auburn, AL.
Toomer's Drugs in downtown Auburn, AL.

This article has been updated and corrected to better represent the context of the case.

Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed a judgement in favor of the defendants in Dixon v. City of Auburn; Ron Anders, in his official capacity as the mayor of the City of Auburn; and Beth Witten, in her official capacity as a member of the Auburn City Council.

Steven Dixon’s appeal related to short-term rentals was denied and his arguments were found "unavailing" by the court. Dixon claimed that the city of Auburn’s short-term rental ordinance ignored his home’s status as preexisting and nonconforming, and violated his right to equal protection.

Dixon is a previous city council member who was elected in 2018. In the same year, he bought a house in an area that "did not expressly regulate short-term rentals of residential property," but was zoned in a Neighborhood Conservation ("NC") at the time according to the Alabama Supreme Court

According to the city's zoning ordinance, the occupancy of dwelling units in NC districts has continuously been limited to no more than two unrelated persons.

Shortly after purchasing, Dixson began renting out his basement on short-term bases.

According to the city of Auburn, the purpose of the NC designation is to “preserve the character of existing neighborhoods and developments,” in an attempt to “prevent these neighborhoods and subdivisions from becoming nonconforming under the terms of this ordinance.”

Essentially, Ordinance No. 3288 is meant to preserve distinct neighborhoods from development which may be incompatible with the existing properties. In doing so, the city prevents almost all commercial uses in zones designated Neighborhood Conservation, expressly prohibits short-term rental and prohibits the number of unrelated persons living in one home from exceeding two people. 

New ordinances were released by the city after a public comment period where residents could submit input on the drafted ordinance in 2018. These public comments were published on the city of Auburn’s website, outlining the different perspectives.

One comment summed up the general arguments favoring rentals, explaining that “short-term rentals provide flexible housing options that allow them to spend longer periods of time in communities in unique accommodations while contributing to the local economy.”

Many of the commenters favoring rentals point out that they either have multiple properties in Auburn or they reside in a property that is larger than what they need. They argue that renting out the property they aren’t using is their right and doing so helps them remain more financially stable. 

The opponents of short-term renting have more diverse contributions, one explaining the impact short-term renting has on their neighborhood and families. They write that their neighborhood is full of houses being used only for short-term renting and that those houses “are like holes in the neighborhood,” that hinder the creation of a close community.

Other opponents express concerns about safety and note that "it’s very unsafe for those living around a place that does short-term rentals,” while some complain about the disturbance that the renters can cause, citing loud music and noise, parking issues and vulgar behavior. 

These responses were taken into account in creating Ordinance No. 3288 which was implemented in March of 2021. Dixon received a cease-and-desist letter in May of 2021, directing him to stop entering into short-term rental agreements for his home, instructions that Dixon ignored. A few months later, he challenged the validity of the short-term ordinance in court. 

Dixson's main argument established that he began renting his basement before the ordinance was enforced, qualifying it as nonconforming use. He also argued that prohibiting property owners in Neighborhood Conservation zones from conducting short-term rental agreements but permitting owners in other zones to do so violates equal protection.  

The Alabama Supreme Court, in addressing the arguments, outlined that Dixon’s property did not qualify as nonconforming use, as it didn’t satisfy the state’s definition of a nonconforming property – it was not legally established before the ordinance was instated. 

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The court also writes that Dixon’s equal protection argument in his brief did not sufficiently supply the court with "contextual legal analysis supporting his equal-protection claim,” as stated in Dixon v. City of Auburn, et al. 

After addressing arguments made by the Dixon, the court concluded that the trial court correctly established Dixon’s violation of the short-term rental ordinance and affirmed their decision.

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