Amendment allows County to evict any tenants residing with school-registered children

County commissioner approves extended stay hotel ordinance

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Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor approved a new ordinance outlining sweeping changes to regulations and oversight of the county’s extended stay hotels at a public meeting Wednesday.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to ensure the continued availability of quality, transient extended stay lodging within Bartow County and to protect the health, safety and welfare of inhabitants,” the ordinance reads. “This article is essential to the public’s interest, safety, health and welfare, and this article shall be liberally construed to effectuate its purposes.”

The ordinance comes in the wake of the sudden closure of the Budgetel Inn off Carson Loop in October, which resulted in the overnight displacement of more than 100 people.

“That situation made us realize our ordinances needed some amendment, where these hotels are sort of devolving into extended-stay without getting any approval from community development or the zoning administrator,” said Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson. “This is a regulation to put some standards on what you’ve got to have and do to be an extended stay hotel.”

First and foremost, the ordinance requires any existing or planned hotels or motels in the county that provide “rooms or suites to patrons” for 14 or more days to pay $500 to the local government for a facility fee — along with $50 per room “designated for extended stay use.”

From there, the ordinance lists dozens of new regulations and requirements pertaining to mandatory room amenities, lot usage and record-keeping procedures. 

The ordinance also bars individuals from residing in any extended stay hotel for more than 120 consecutive days “without a two-day vacancy between stays.” The amendment, however, allows exemptions for individuals “with valid work orders” and those who have been displaced by a fire or natural disaster — albeit, as long as there is documentation from “an insurance company or federal, state or local agency.”

The ordinance also creates an exemption for those with “documentation, consistent with HIPPA privacy rules, that an extended stay guest is considered family or is providing care for a patient who is admitted at a local hospital.”

As written, the ordinance limits the maximum capacity of any room with less than 300 square feet of floor space to no more than two occupants. For rooms that are larger than 300 square feet, one additional occupant is allowed for every additional 75 feet of floor space.

“We don’t feel like we need to cram five, six people into a 100-square-foot room,” said Bartow County Zoning Administrator Brandon Johnson.

Continuing, Johnson said he does not envision the ordinance having any unintentional impacts on other hotels and motels in the community.

“I’m sure there are some hotels that are probably doing some extended stay or offering rooms for long periods of time that maybe they’re not approved for,” he said. “The Budgetel issue was not an issue that we went out looking for, it came to us. The drug task-force was making so many arrests out there that they notified us about the living conditions — I don’t know of any hotels that are anywhere near that bad, and if there are, now we have this ordinance that can take care of that.”

Under the ordinance, Bartow County’s community development director would have wide discretion to approve or deny extended stay hotel permits based on criteria such as “the applicant and property’s history of criminal or drug-related activity on the premises.”

For that kind of criteria, however, Johnson said the County doesn’t have an objective standard.

“It would be a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We would do our research if a hotel tried to come through the permitting process and we have cause to believe there are issues out there involving crime and drugs, we can get with the sheriff’s office and pull those records.”

The ordinance also requires extended-stay motel operators to maintain files containing data on renters — including their rates and payment methods — for at least 180 days after the tenants leave the facility.

The ordinance likewise grants employees or agents of the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Bartow County Fire Department, Bartow County Community Development Office and Bartow County Board of Health the ability to enter extended stay hotels “at reasonable times to perform the duties imposed by this article.”

And that includes individual rooms.

“If entry is refused by occupant, County personnel shall have recourse to remedies by law to secure entry,” the ordinance reads. “If entry is refused by the owner or other person having charge or control of the structure refuses entry, County employees shall have recourse to all methods of entry allowed by law, and the owner and responsible party shall be in violation of this article and subject to punishment.”

When asked if he had any concerns about potential legal challenges from tenants or extended stay motel operators regarding the regulations, Johnson deferred comment to the Bartow County government’s legal counsel.

Another aspect of the ordinance effectively bars children in the local school system from residing in extended stay motels — in fact, as currently written, such would require an automatic eviction. 

“The proof of registration of children in area schools using the address of the facility shall result in termination of guest stay, even if within an extended stay facility,” the ordinance reads. 

That provision was added at the request of County legal counsel, Johnson said.

“He had done some research on some other extended-stay ordinances in other communities around us — obviously, that could create a problem if folks are using a hotel address for school enrollment,” he said. 

The ordinance, however does not explicitly define what constitutes an “area school.” Nor does it specify any procedures regarding housing solutions for children who are displaced by the ordinance. 

“I’m sure we would work with the school system on that, if that arose,” Johnson said.

A section of the ordinance outlining penalties indicates the County would have the ability to deem any violation of the ordinance to be “abated as a nuisance.” As such, the community development director would have the authority to declare any violators “unlawful” and suspend and/or revoke the operator’s extended stay motel permit. 

In that case, operators would have 30 days to file an appeal with the Bartow County Commissioner.

“Anything that the zoning office denies can be appealed to the Board of Zoning Appeals, so it’s the same thing here,” Johnson said. “If we deny a permit, they can go and appeal that to the board of appeals.”

Johnson said the operators of the Budgetel Inn off Carson Loop have told County officials they intend to reopen the motel in early 2020. 

“They have done a lot of work out there, but I think there’s still a lot of work that has to be done,” he said. “Their contractor has been in contact with our office, and the health department is involved in that, as well.”

He said the County did issue several citations to motel owner Sri Bollepalli over the conditions at the facility, adding that Bollepalli pled not guilty to all of them in magistrate court last month.

“We have court in December for those citations,” Johnson said. “There are 11 citations total that we issued.”

As for how the ordinance addresses the issue of affordable housing in Bartow County, Johnson said the new regulations at least give existing hotels and motels an opportunity to convert to longer-term units.

“I don’t know if an extended stay is affordable housing — I don’t think anybody should live in a hotel room for as long as they were at the Budgetel,” he said. “We had some people that said they had lived in the same room for three years.”