As the use of online rental websites like Airbnb and VRBO rises nationwide, Bluffton Town Council has approved a standardized set of rules — and a new fee — for Bluffton property owners looking to rent out rooms or homes.

The town’s requirements came Tuesday night after more than a year of meeting with constituents about issues related to an influx of short-term rentals in the area.

Bluffton residents were worried about the “makeup and change of their neighborhoods,” Council member Dan Wood said.

But “It’s not just a Bluffton issue,” he said.

“It’s been growing across the nation for a few years. The Municipal Association said it was one of the No. 1 topics across the state of South Carolina.”

Short-term rentals through online businesses like Airbnb and VRBO can “alter the character of established neighborhoods,” according to a 2017 report from the Municipal Association of South Carolina. Therefore, many communities in South Carolina have looked for the “best way to accommodate the demand for these new types of lodging, while still protecting the safety of housing, neighborhood character and land planning goals,” the report said.

A screenshot of rental listings in Bluffton on Airbnb. Airbnb

Tuesday’s approval was Bluffton’s attempt to fall in line with other S.C. municipalities that have adopted similar rules, such as Beaufort, Folly Beach and Mount Pleasant.

Short-term rentals in Bluffton are defined as dwelling units that are rented to “transient guests” for less than 30 consecutive days. Owners of those units will now be required to submit permit applications to the town for approval.

The rental units will be limited to one per lot and cannot have visible commercial signs on their exterior.

Those wishing to rent out their homes short term will also have to pay the town a yearly $325 fee, according to town documents. The new fee is expected to generate about $55,250 in revenue next year.

Wood said he’s seen problems with short-term rentals having large parties or an influx of guests in the area.

“I hope there’s some accountability,” he said. “If you were to go to an Airbnb and you have problems, you need to know who you can contact and where you can go to get your problems solved. If somebody’s a bad tenant, who do you talk to?”

What are the rules?

Town Manager Marc Orlando said the main goal of the new rules is to make sure those renting their homes short term were properly licensed so that renters, and the town, can trust the rental.

Short-term rental scams have been a problem in the area recently.

In March, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reported that a tourist from Ontario, Canada, traveled 1,000 miles only to find out that her condo rental at Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head Island was a fraud.

“I’ve seen it myself, personally and professionally, where the home next door is converted to a full-time, short-term rental,” Orlando said. Residents “wanted to make sure we looked at our policy so that if folks were establishing short-term rentals, they’re properly licensed.”

A screenshot of rental listings in Bluffton on Airbnb. Airbnb

On top of paying the fee, those wishing to host short-term renters will have to submit a long permitting application that requires the host to be at least 18 years old and:

Be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the phone number listed on the application;

Be willing and able to come to the rental unit within one hour to address issues related to the property;

Be authorized to receive service of any legal notice on behalf of the owner for violations of the Bluffton ordinances;

Be able to produce copies of the rental or lease agreement for current occupants as needed;

Monitor the short-term rental unit at least once weekly to ensure compliance with the ordinance.

Lucy Scardino’s Airbnb rental cottage is photographed on July 13. Located on the end of Pritchard Street in Old Town, it features an expansive view of the May River. In addition, guests who are so inclined can learn about woodworking with Scardino’s husband, Peter Lamb, who has a shop on the property. Staff photo

The rental units will also be required to have several safety precautions before approval:

A smoke detector in each bedroom and at least one smoke detector on each floor

At least one carbon monoxide detector on each floor

Each bedroom must have a window that meets requirements for emergency exit

A functioning fire extinguisher

Address numbers posted and visible from the street

The town of Bluffton will be implementing new software to keep tabs of all short-term renters in the area, Orlando said. Beaufort has a website that shows all short-term rentals in the city.

A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri with an emphasis in investigative reporting. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. His work has garnered Missouri and South Carolina Press Association awards for investigative, enterprise, in-depth, health, growth and government reporting.
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