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Elizabeth Gentzler, manager of the probation and parole unit for sex offenders with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, speaks to the Chattanooga City Council.

The Chattanooga City Council will take another crack at enacting a special district for short-term vacation rental businesses on Tuesday.

The proposed district encompasses much of the city's core, the North Shore and Lookout Valley. It excludes Glenwood in the east and pockets opposite Moccasin Bend and along East Brow Road in the west.

The council has grappled for about a year with regulating the growing residence-based lodging economy, boosted through internet-based booking sites such as Airbnb.

Two weeks ago, the council postponed a planned vote after private school officials asked it to consider adding 1,000-ft. buffers around school facilities to protect children from potential sexual predators.

Earlier, Girls Preparatory School Head Autumn Graves likened a buffer with similar set-offs for liquor stores, adult entertainment businesses and hazardous waste storage facilities.

Graves could not provide any data linking short-term vacation rentals to sexual predators when prompted by Henderson.

Last week, the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency held a forum and the council was briefed on sex offender registration and tracking policies by the Tennessee Department of Correction and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

"I feel like it's important that we be educated, that we make legislation based on facts and not necessarily on fear or guesswork," Councilman Chip Henderson, the legislation's sponsor, said when he introduced law enforcement officers during a council planning session.

Elizabeth Gentzler, manager of the state probation and parole unit for sex offenders, explained the state has restrictions in place for convicted sex offenders.

"If they come into this state for vacation, whether they're on probation or not, if they don't register, it's a Class E felony," Gentzler said. That registration is done at the local sheriff's office.

Generally, sex offenders may not linger within 1,000 feet of the property line of public, private or parochial schools, child care facilities, public parks, playgrounds and recreational sites where children are present, according to state rules.

Airbnb described its stance on host and guest safety standards to the Times Free Press in an email.

"We use sophisticated technologies and behavioral analysis techniques to help prevent bad actors from utilizing the platform in the first place," Ben Breit of Airbnb's public affairs division wrote. "For United States residents, we also run host and guest information through several public databases to check if there are matches with certain felony convictions, sex offender registrations, and significant misdemeanors."

The special-district plan, whether or not it includes buffer zones for schools, represents a sea change for Chattanooga's short-term vacation rental regulations.

It proposes to do away with long-standing rules that require short-term vacation properties to be zoned R-3 or R-4, which also allows office and apartment uses.

Inside the district, property owners will simply purchase a short-term vacation permit. Short-stay operators who live on the properties will need a $75 permit and a business license. Off-site owners will pay $125 and their neighbors will receive notice and have a chance to oppose the permit.

Once the law goes into effect, no new short-term vacation rentals will be allowed outside the district.

Henderson has suggested allowing more time for people outside the district boundary to make their zoning requests.

The district idea "gives us pause," Airbnb Midwest Policy Director Laura Spanjian said in a recent letter to the council that supported making the regulations citywide.

"We are concerned it would be difficult to implement, and could prevent Chattanooga from realizing one of the largest benefits of home sharing: the distribution of tourism dollars throughout all of Chattanooga's neighborhoods," Spanjian said.

Last fall, the council abruptly trashed a proposed citywide short-term vacation rental permit program in a 6-2 vote following two months of debate and a number of public hearings. Henderson and Councilman Jerry Mitchell, now council chairman, cast the no votes.

Vocal opponents, primarily from North Brainerd and Bal Harbor, have claimed short-term vacation rentals are "mini-hotels" that disrupt neighborhoods and could expose them to strangers with criminal intentions.

Olivia Karavatakis, a Highland Park Airbnb host, has argued internet booking sites are better for vetting guests for safety.

"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," she said.

East Chattanooga Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who held a community meeting with Henderson to address concerns over proposed short-term vacation rental rules last month, has urged residents to come to the council's Tuesday meeting.

"I want people to start feeling a part of conversations and solutions," Coonrod said in an email.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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