After years of contention over them, Walworth County’s short-term rental policies could change significantly in coming months.

The Walworth County Zoning Agency agreed on several new proposals Thursday night, advancing the measures to a public hearing in March.

The proposals define short-term rentals in the county’s zoning code and redefine a short-term rental as a seven-day minimum stay.

Short-term rentals—such as those available through Airbnb and VRBO—currently come with a 30-day minimum stay requirement in the unincorporated areas of Walworth County.

The state Legislature passed a law in September that bars counties from turning down short-term rentals of at least seven consecutive days.

The Walworth County proposals must be approved by the county board, but the seven-day state requirement cannot be changed.

“The state Legislature limited our ability to prohibit short-term rentals,” said Shannon Haydin, deputy director of Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management Department. “Our hands are tied.”

The county currently limits the number of occupants in a short-term rental to two per bedroom. Under a new proposal, the number of acceptable tenants would depend mostly on the property’s septic system.

If the property is served by public sanitation, the legal occupancy would be determined by the state tourist rooming house license. But if the property is served by private wastewater, the legal occupancy would be determined by either the housing license or the number of inhabitants specified by that septic system, whichever number is lower.

A plot survey would not be required for a short-term rental application, but an application fee of $1,000 is proposed. Haydin noted there will be pushback from county residents on that fee.

Walworth County Land Use Director Michael Cotter said the fee will pay for new county employees who will enforce the proposed measures, but the fee will depend on the number of residents that ultimately apply.

Short-term rentals have been a contentious issue in Walworth County for several years.

Fourteen lawsuits regarding short-term rentals have been filed against the county since 2014, when a court forced the county to fine-tune its policies.

Haydin said the policy updates seek to further clarify the county’s zoning codes before the tourism season starts.

Keeping the policy within the boundaries of the seven-day minimum requirement by the state allows single-family residential homes to “act like single-family residential homes rather than a hotel,” Haydin said.

“If you have different groups of people coming in every few days, and you’re the neighbor, it feels like a hotel,” Haydin said. “There are two sides to the story.”

Hundreds of short-term rentals are currently listed on Airbnb.com in Walworth County, with bedrooms ranging from one to 13. Renters may reserve some of the houses from one night to several weeks.

At the end of 2017, Walworth County fined residents $663 a day for breaking short-term rental policies.

Some of the properties listed online fall under municipal jurisdiction, and those communities have their own short-term rental zoning laws.

Lake Geneva, which is home to many short-term rentals, plans to hold a public hearing in March as it adapts its policies in light of the new state law, said Fred Walling, Lake Geneva’s building and zoning administrator.

At the county zoning meeting Thursday night, Cotter said the county is hopeful that “good renters will help this process along and police the renters that are problematic.”

“Now’s the time to come to the public hearing and speak and let your opinions be known,” Cotter said. “I urge people to show up.”

The date of the county’s public hearing has not yet been set.

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