City Council punts on Airbnb rules as school officials raise concerns over child predators

City Council punts on Airbnb rules as school officials raise concerns over child predators

June 13th, 2017 by Paul Leach in Politics Local

The Chattanooga City Council considers giving more time for people to speak at the end of the body's meetings.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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After nearly a year of struggling, the Chattanooga City Council almost voted on new regulations governing short-term vacation rental operations this evening.

Instead, the council voted 9-0 to defer a vote which would establish a special district which would end short-stay property usage through zoning, replacing it with a permit process. The proposed district encompasses the city core, the North Shore and Lookout Valley.

The council moved the vote until June 27.

Until new certification rules are implemented, Chattanooga requires properties used for short-term vacation rentals to be zoned R-3 or R-4, which also allows office and apartment uses.

The decision to defer came after a number of private school officials voiced concerns over child predators using short-term vacation rentals as a means to get close to children.

"I would like you to consider some kind of school safety zone as a part of this ordinance in terms of the short-term vacation rentals," Autumn Graves, head of school at Girls Preparatory School, said.

A 1,000-ft. buffer between short-term vacation rentals and a school is nothing new to city, citing existing measures which put distance between schools and establishments which sell alcoholic beverages, provide adult entertainment or store hazardous wastes.

"I'm not interested in getting in the way of free enterprise in this regard, but I am very, very interested in us being extremely thoughtful about how we go about putting this kind of ordinance in place," Graves said. "Particularly, because it's about the well-being of children."

Graves requested the council delay their vote until she and other like-minded community stakeholders could could review the issue in depth with them.

"This city is an innovative place," Graves said. "This city does not wait for other people to do things first before we do it, and I think we can really set the stage for best practices around the country."

Henderson asked Graves if she had any data to support her position on the potential danger short-term vacation rentals presented to schools.

"I do not have that data," Graves said. "I do have anecdotal information from other cities where the short-term vacation rentals have turned into places where there's illegal activities...including drug drops, prostitution, sexual assault."

Regional Planning Agency Director John Bridger said the long-standing practice of approving short-term vacation rental usage by zoning does not include school safety zones.

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Henderson asked Graves how hotels fit into her view of school safety zones, adding the council cannot legislate based on a few educational institutions, but most look at the picture "holistically."

"I know of some schools, myself, that are within 1,000 feet of a hotel right now," Henderson said. "So my question would be, are you concerned about hotels around any educational facility?"

Graves said hotels have a "certain amount of regulation" and train front desk staff to recognize troublesome behavior.

"I'm more concerned about private citizens engaging in hotel practices in which they are not trained," Graves said.

When it comes to safety, a number of short-term vacation rental hosts have said the issue is foremost in their mind, especially when they live in the home they rent to visitors.

Highland Park vacation rental operator Olivia Karavatakis recently said internet booking protocols are actually better for vetting guests. With a hotel, anybody can get a room, she said.

"I don't want just any Joe Blow coming and staying with me if I don't feel comfortable that they're not being forthcoming with information," Karavatakis said. "For me, that's my safety check."

Henderson asked Bridger to arrange a meeting with education officials and other interested parties and make "feasible" recommendations to the city council concerning any possible amendments before the June 27vote.

In other business, the council voted 9-0 in favor of rezoning a Randolf Circle property, located near Highway 153 and Bonny Oaks Drive, for a new $13 million Humane Educational Society building.

No one voiced opposition to the rezoning, which stipulated the facility may not have outdoor kennels overnight.