After imposing a temporary pause on certain new applications in April to more thoroughly review the city's regulations, the Chattanooga City Council approved on first reading Tuesday new rules for short-term vacation rentals that include an expanded buffer zone in certain residential areas.
The vote was 6-3 with Council Chairman Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, Councilman Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, and Councilman Ken Smith, of Hixson, voting against the measure.
The ordinance includes an amendment brought by Councilwoman Marvene Noel, of Orchard Knob, that expanded the radius of the buffer zone to 1,000 feet, larger than the 500-foot radius included in the original version of the ordinance. Under the revised version, no new absentee rentals would be allowed within 1,000 feet of another vacation absentee rental in a single-family detached zoning district.
Absentee rentals are those in which the owner doesn't live on the premises. They are distinct from homestay rentals, which are properties where the owner lives on site.
Noel's amendment was OK'd on a 5-4 vote with Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, joining her colleagues on the dissenting side. Hill and Henderson co-sponsored the legislation, which still requires the council to take one more vote before it goes into effect.
Noel asked her colleagues to consider expanding the size of the radius to 1,000 feet during a review of the council's agenda Tuesday afternoon. She said the change would ensure fewer short-term vacation rentals pop up in her district.
Henderson responded that he opposed the change, noting that officials have already publicized the original buffer zone. The 500-foot radius is also similar to buffers already implemented in many other cities.
"I think it would effectively shut it down," Henderson said.
Noel doubted it would completely eliminate short-term vacation rental activity in the city.
"Who says that we have to be cookie cutter?" she asked Henderson. "Who says that we have to follow what everyone else does. ... Chattanooga is very different in a lot of ways."
Noel said in an interview Tuesday her district is saturated with short-term vacation rentals -- both illegal and legal. The expanded radius would be a major help, she said, and would only allow about a dozen more short-term vacation rentals in her district versus roughly 50 with a 500-foot radius.
Council members aren't wholesale opposed to short-term vacation rentals, Noel said, but in a perfect world, the properties would be isolated to commercial areas -- not in the middle of a neighborhood.
"It's like -- an example that I use all the time -- a toilet," Noel said. "A toilet is useful to every single person. Now, because it's your house and my house, if you want to put your toilet in your living room, you can. If I want to put it in my dining room I can. But the best place for that toilet for it to be beneficial to everyone that's in the house is in the bathroom."
Aside from the new buffer zone, the proposed ordinance would also increase the cost of new short-term rental permits, set density requirements on absentee permits in multifamily dwellings, allow the city to impose stiffer penalties for illegally operated properties and create a designated citizen board that would hear appeals and moderate disputes.
It leaves intact the city's existing short-term vacation rental district, which allows the properties only in certain parts of the city, but the ordinance states that council members will reconsider that overlay a year after passage.
The city's moratorium on absentee short-term vacation rentals is set to end in July.
Smith, whose district does not fall in that short-term vacation rental zone, said in an interview he voted against the measure because of the expanded 1,000-foot buffer zone.
"I think there's areas in this city that it makes sense to allow the 500-foot boundary that was originally proposed," he said.
Smith said he has a constituent who owns about 90 acres of wooded land in another city district -- property the owner bought because he wanted to build cabins that would serve as short-term vacation rentals.
"Having a restriction like that means he's got to clear cut more trees, put in more driveways -- everything we don't want done to our beautiful, natural landscapes," Smith said. "Putting 1,000 feet on it basically nulls and voids his project altogether when it would have been a great little spot for some vacation cabins."