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Rocky Top passes ordinance on first reading to regulate short-term rentals

Owners of short-term residential rental properties in Rocky Top will be required to pay a $100 application and permit fee to operate those units inside the city, and to follow other rules, including safety and health requirements, under an ordinance the City Council passed unanimously on first reading last Thursday night.

The ordinance is similar to one passed recently by the Norris City Council, and also is patterned after a short-term rental ordinance already in place in Caryville, city officials said.

Unlike Norris, however, the Rocky Top ordinance has not yet generated any blowback from city residents. In Norris, the City Council took several months to develop the ordinance after a preliminary draft measure was approved by the city’s planning and zoning commission and submitted to the council.

While Norris held two public meetings crowded with interested citizens to consider changes to the draft ordinance that included additional restrictions on the rentals, no residents attended the Rocky Top council’s meeting in which the ordinance passed on first reading.

It’s now scheduled to be presented for passage on second and final reading at the next regular council meeting, May 19. And unlike Norris, Rocky Top will not hold a public hearing prior to consideration of the ordinance on final reading.

Short-term rentals are defined by Tennessee law as being overnight accommodations, other than hotel and bed-and-breakfast lodgings, of at least one night, but no longer than 30 nights.

They have become popular worldwide through such online services as Airbnb and Vrbo (Vacation Rental by Owner). State law does not permit cities or counties to ban such rentals, but it does allow private homeowners’ association to prohibit them.

A big difference between Norris and Rocky Top is that a majority of residents attending the public meetings on the ordinance in Norris opposed allowing such rentals within that city.

In Rocky Top, “We want to encourage short-term rentals,” said City Manager Michael Foster.

That’s in accord with the city government’s recent push to develop Rocky Top as a tourist destination, taking advantage of Norris Lake to the east and the Windrock off-road vehicle park to the west of town.

About five years ago, Rocky Top began allowing unlicensed all-terrain vehicles to use certain city streets to come into town from Windrock for their riders to eat and shop.

Two campgrounds/recreational-vehicle parks are currently under construction in Rocky Top – one on each side of the city – to help accommodate more tourism.

Rocky Top’s short-term rental ordinance will require only one permit per property, rather than per unit. City officials said some existing properties contain more than one residential unit.

Rental units will be inspected for safety, and will be required to have fire, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and fire extinguishers.

Owners, and operators designated by property owners, will be required to be able to respond to problems and emergencies within two hours, with designated contacts available to renters at all hours of every day.

Each applicant “must provide a valid Anderson County/Campbell County and City of Rocky Top Business License,” the ordinance states. The owners/operators also must pay all “applicable taxes, including, but not limited to, Hotel Occupancy Privilege Tax, local option sales tax, and gross receipts tax to the city, sales tax to the State of Tennessee, and gross receipts tax to the State of Tennessee,” the ordinance says.

Maximum occupancy allowed will be “four transients per bedroom,” and there “must be a minimum of one parking space per bedroom,” the measure says.

“[City staff] will review parking layout and reserves the right to limit maximum occupancy based on nuisance potential to surrounding neighbors,” it also states.

Operating without a permit will result in a fine of $50 per day per unit.

Permits will be valid for one year, and must be renewed annually for a fee of $100, the ordinance says.

When the ordinance receives final approval by the council, it will go into effect after 30 days.

In other business during the April 21 meeting, the council:

• Approved a resolution to declare the city’s third and oldest fire pumper truck as “surplus property,” and to donate it to the nearby Medford Volunteer Fire Department. The city recently bought a new fire truck, and has another one in reserve.

The third truck, a 1994 Freightliner, is still in good condition, but is not needed by the department. Besides the $300,000 new pumper, the city has a second pumper that is just 10 years old. It also has a ladder truck that was donated by the city of Clinton.

• Hired the law firm of Owings, Wilson & Coleman to provide legal services to the city to replace a firm that pulled out of its contract with Rocky Top.

• Re-hired accounting firm Mitchell, Emert & Hill to provide annual financial audits for the city as required by state law.

The new contract comes with a 5% price increase, to $24,800 per year.