Rabbi Prohibited from Using Property as Short-Term Vacation Rental Under Savannah Ordinance

Robinson+Cole RLUIPA Defense

A court in Chatham County, Georgia has granted the City of Savannah’s (“City”) request for a preliminary injunction temporarily prohibiting Rabbi Arnold Belzer and his wife from operating a “short-term vacation rental” and/or a “bed and breakfast homestay” at their home on Washington Avenue in Savannah (the “Property”). In doing so, the court rejected Rabbi Belzer’s contention that, owing to sincerely-held religious belief in the Jewish practice of hospitality, an obligation found in Jewish scripture and tradition, he and his wife should be exempt from the Savannah Code of Ordinances’ prohibition on short-term rentals.

Rabbi Belzer and his wife, who purchased the Property in 2003, have opened their home to guests from all over the world for the past fifteen years. Since at least 2014, some of these guests have arrived in response to the Belzers’ listings on Airbnb and similar websites.

Under Savannah’s Code of Ordinances, however, neither a “short-term vacation rental” nor a “bed and breakfast homestay” may be operated on the Property, which is located in Savannah’s R-6 zoning district. Moreover, in zoning districts where such operations are permitted, the acquisition of a business tax certificate from the City is a prerequisite to operation. The Belzers have admittedly never obtained such certificate.

In assessing whether the Belzers could be exempt from these zoning requirements, the court turned to RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision, asking whether the City’s zoning requirements might impose a substantial burden on the Belzers’ use of the Property for religious exercise. Citing Midrash Sephardi v. Town of Surfside (11th Cir.), the court defined substantial burden as “a regulation that completely prevents the individual from engaging in religiously mandated activity.” Accordingly, because Rabbi Belzer testified that he has alternatives to his current religious practices – move four blocks away and operate a commercial enterprise without violating the zoning ordinance, or cease for-profit activity and offer to allow travelers free of charge – the court found that the City’s zoning requirements do not impose a substantial burden.

In the context of the City’s request for preliminary injunction, the court found that the Belzers’ inability to demonstrate a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion created a substantial likelihood that the City will prevail on its claims against the Belzers at trial. Additionally, the court summarily found that “granting the [preliminary] injunction would not disserve the public interest but instead would be to the benefit of the public interest.” Although the City may not suffer irreparable injury if the Belzers were allowed to continue operations, given the Belzers’ testimony that they have been operating in this manner for many years, the court ultimately concluded that the balance of equities weighed in favor of granting the preliminary injunction.

The Order on Motion for Interlocutory Injunction in The Mayor and Alderman of the City of Savannah v. Belzer is available here.

Original photography by sswj, some rights reserved.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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