Jackson County

Walkers defying ordinance by keeping B&B open, neighbors say

Scott and Trinity Walker
Scott and Trinity Walker

Scott and Trinity Walker’s neighbors have told city leaders the couple is defying its ordinance and renting out their East Beach home on a short-term basis without a permit, even though 10 months ago the city ordered them to stop.

This doesn’t bode well, as the Walkers are still applying for a city permit to run a commercial bed-and-breakfast in the home.

Trinity Walker, however, said the city confirmed in October that she is allowed to rent her home for 30 days or longer without a permit.

“We are only allowing 30-plus days,” she said in a text to the Sun Herald. “We’ve had to cancel six reservations totaling $30,000.”

The Walkers live on prime beachfront real estate and have said renting out the house is important to their income. Businessman Scott Walker is known for an unsuccessful bid for mayor and a 16-month stint in federal prison after pleading guilty to fraud and conspiracy involving the state Department of Marine Resources and the city of D’Iberville.

The Building Department is getting emails about activities at the house that lead neighbors to believe the Walkers are regularly renting to vacationers. The city has a computer screen shot showing, as late as last weekend, the house was still listed for rent on short-term-rental websites.

In the meantime, the ordinance that governs bed-and-breakfasts in the city may be changing.

The Planning Commission voted Tuesday night for changes that would among other things, add enforcement teeth.

The Walkers at the moment are the only applicants for a permit under the current bed-and-breakfast ordinance. Their application was tabled in April, not long after they submitted it, while the city took a fresh look at the ordinance.

Their application triggered the review because it brought up questions, city planning and building officials said. It’s an ordinance they hadn’t looked at in awhile and it deals with allowing commercial businesses in single-family residential neighborhoods.

The next step will be for the Board of Aldermen to decide next Tuesday if it wants the revised bed-and-breakfast ordinance, and then for the Planning Commission to decide if the Walkers can continue their application under the current ordinance or must reapply under a new ordinance. Anyone who is in violation under the new version of the ordinance would face stiffer penalties and likely lose their permit.

Walkers want to stay the course

Trinity Walker said Wednesday she hoped the city would grant them the use permit they applied for in April under the current ordinance and not the new, stricter one.

“We meet all of the criteria, have passed all of the required inspections,” she said, “and are ready to host the many people wanting to come to our great city.”

The Walkers’ attorney has urged the Planning Commission to make a decision based on the ordinance and not “discriminate against the Walkers.”

Jim Reeves, attorney for the neighborhood, however, said his clients are arguing the Walkers should have to reapply under a new, more-stringent ordinance. He plans to speak before the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday. For one thing, the ordinance is more likely to require the Walkers be home for their rental guests.

“The real problem with the Walkers is they continue to violate the ordinance anyway, without the permit,” Reeves told the Sun Herald. “The neighbors are aware they have people there every week, even without a permit. That’s not good faith.”

He said the issue has been taken to city court with a cease-and-desist order and is likely to wind up there again.

“It will fundamentally change the neighborhood and not for the good.”

Reeves plans to build in the neighborhood as well.

When it first happened

When the city in March first learned the Walkers were renting out their home, they were advertising it online for short-term rentals at $1,000 a day or $11,000 a month, and as a commercial wedding venue — without a city permit for either.

They did not apply for a permit for weddings or short-term rentals, but instead for a bed-and-breakfast permit, which seemed to suit their situation because they have a guest cottage.

The city warned them to stop renting until they got a permit. They agreed, saying they had been unaware of the ordinance.

Now, the city says, they appear to be ignoring the ordinance.

The Walkers are scheduled to appear before the Planning Commission about their permit on the second Tuesday in February.

Alderman Matt McDonnell said their neighbors have complained to the entire Board of Aldermen.

“I don’t think the neighbors are embracing this concept,” he said. He pointed out it takes a commercial license to run a bed-and-breakfast.

With bed-and-breakfasts, the owner must be on the grounds while renting the property. They can hire a representative in an emergency, city planners said, but they can’t be out of town on a regular basis under the the proposed new ordinance or they would risk losing their city permit.