Martin Murphy short-term rental properties

Two of Martin Murphy’s short-term rental properties are shown side by side overlooking the southern shore of Lake Como in the town of Geneva. (File photo/Regional News)

A federal judge has upheld Walworth County’s rules regulating homeowners who want to rent their properties to weekend tourists.

In dismissing a property owner’s challenge, U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller wrote that government has a right to treat short-term rentals differently than other properties.

Stadtmueller said the county’s rules were appropriate given that such rentals can create problems with excessive noise, crowds, and pollution.

“The interests that tourists have in preserving the quality of life in a neighborhood tends to be lower, because they will soon leave,” the judge wrote.

Walworth County last year approved an ordinance requiring owners of short-term rentals to register with the county, to rent their property for at least seven days at a time, and to meet county standards on occupancy, parking and sanitation.

Applicants for county registration must provide a site plan, a floor plan, a garbage hauler’s name and schedule, and evidence of an adequate sanitary system.

Property owner Martin Murphy, who owns rental properties along Lake Como, filed suit challenging the county’s regulations as unconstitutional.

Murphy owns the Waters Edge Bed & Breakfast at W4232 West End Road, as well as other properties at W4106, W4110 and W4117 West End Road, all in the town of Geneva.

In his suit, Murphy said the county was violating his constitutional rights by treating him differently than other property owners, and also by requiring him to maintain a guest registry for county scrutiny.

County officials have since dropped the guest registry requirement for short-term rentals, and they have lowered from $904 to $600 the annual registration fee required of such property owners.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee.

In the case, county officials defended their tourist rental rules, ultimately winning an April 10 ruling from the judge to dismiss Murphy’s claims.

Murphy, an attorney, said he plans to ask the judge to reconsider the ruling, and if necessary he will appeal the case.

Murphy said the county’s regulations are too “subjective” in treating tourist rental owners differently than other residential property owners. Dropping the guest registry requirement and lowering the registration fee were improvements, he said.

“There are things happening that are going in the right direction,” he said. “A couple of more tweaks, and we’re done.”

In his ruling, Stadtmueller did not address the guest registry dispute, because the county’s repeal of that portion of the ordinance made the issue moot.

Stadtmueller, however, discussed at length the phenomenon of short-term rentals for tourists, noting the challenges that local governments are facing as they try to regulate such operations since state lawmakers in 2017 mandated that communities allow the neighborhood rentals.

The judge pointed out that taking a house designed for five people and subjecting it to crowds of 10 to 15 people at a time for an entire summer could put a strain on a private sanitary system, even causing a failure, which he called “a very unpleasant chain of events, to say the least.”

The judge ruled that such rentals can be treated differently than other homes because, he said, they are being used differently. The county’s goal, he wrote, is to protect quality of life for other property owners who live nearby.

“The short-term rental phenomenon, which rides in tandem with summer tourism in the county, has positive and negative effects for the long-term residents in the community,” he wrote. “Long-term residents may welcome tourists in their commercial zones, but find them annoying and un-bargained-for in residential areas.”