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A court ruling on the Tennessee side of Lookout Mountain could open up short-term vacation rental spots in town.

On Tuesday evening, Municipal Judge Flossie Weill dismissed citations against Scott Soltau, a homeowner who rented out his basement on Sunny Point Lane on Airbnb. Weill told the town attorney that an ordinance banning rentals in residential areas was too vague. The ordinance, adopted by the council in March 2017, says short-term vacation rentals can only occur in Lookout Mountain's commercial district.

But the judge pointed out that the ordinance does not explicitly ban someone from renting out a part of their house, writing, "any ambiguity in a zoning ordinance should be resolved in favor of an owner's unrestricted use of his or her property."

Buddy Presley, an attorney who represents Soltau, said the ruling could affect other homes in the area. In May, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill that curbs municipalities from restricting short-term vacation rentals. The bill, which came after lobbying from Airbnb and similar companies, creates a grandfather clause for homes that operated as short-term vacation rental spots before a municipality passed an ordinance.

Basically, those homeowners will be able to continue renting out spaces after an ordinance is adopted. If the town council has to rewrite its short-term vacation rental ordinance, Presley said, other homes could begin renting spaces beforehand, making them exempt from the new restriction.

"If they had worded [the ordinance] differently, they probably could have stopped us," he said. "So now, they're probably going to have a whole bunch of people renting their Airbnbs up there. People like coming up there, to Rock City, to Ruby Falls. People can rent out their basements."

The town has 10 days to appeal to Hamilton County Circuit Court. Town Attorney Brian Smith said Wednesday he is still reviewing Weill's order.

He said the council passed the ordinance after receiving complaints from residents about noisy and disruptive renters staying in their neighborhoods. Presley said a homeowner on Fairy Trail was renting out his whole property while he was away, and some visitors were far from pristine tourists.

After the ordinance passed, Soltau continued to rent out his basement. On Sept. 5, Chief Charles Wells warned him that he was violating the town's law because he did not live in the commercial district. Wells then wrote him a $50 citation for continuing to ignore the ordinance. He wrote another seven citations over the next two months.

On Dec. 4, Weill ruled against Soltau and ordered him to pay a $350 fine. But she changed her mind this week, after reading some previous cases that Presley provided. She wrote that legal precedent gives priority to the homeowner when a municipality's zoning ordinances are unclear.

"I don't know what we'll do yet," Smith said Wednesday, when asked if the council will appeal.

On the Georgia side of the mountain, the city council passed an ordinance restricting short-term vacation rentals in September 2017. The ordinance allows homeowners to rent out a part of their home, such as a room or a basement, as long as they are also on the property. It bans a homeowner from renting out the entire house.

Sam Silvey, who previously rented out a house on Fairy Dell Trail, sued the city in U.S. District Court in February. But a judge dismissed the case in April.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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