County May Regulate Short-Term Rentals
A wild party in East Knox County pushes the growth of vacation stays in rural areas onto officials’ radar.
by jesse fox mayshark • August 15, 2023
Julie Clark, her husband and their neighbors were surprised by all the cars coming down their generally quiet country road the evening of July 7.
Knox County currently has no restrictions on short-term rentals in residential areas.
Bella Vista Lane is a narrow, dead-end drive that turns off Kodak Road between Thorngrove Pike and the French Broad River. Clark’s husband’s family has lived there for generations and still owns and occupies several of the small number of scattered homes.
But they don’t own the house at 2520 Bella Vista, which is where the traffic was headed that night, albeit haltingly and often turning down the wrong driveways by accident. It’s also where the party was.
“It was basically a mob,” Clark said in an interview. “I think it spread on SnapChat, someone just gave out the address and all these people were Ubering. Our driveway is like a maze, so they were coming into our driveway and my sister had to stop them.”
She estimates that over the course of several hours 30 to 40 people arrived at the small two-bedroom house at the top of a long driveway, some at 11 p.m. or later. They were mostly young — teenagers and people in their early 20s. And the Friday night party noise disrupted the sleep of residents, some of whom had to be at work at 8 a.m. the next day.
Eventually neighbors called in a noise complaint, and eventually authorities responded, and eventually — sometime after literal fireworks were set off around 3 a.m. — the whole thing got shut down.
What Clark and her neighbors didn’t know but soon discovered was that none of the people at the party lived at the house, and that the home’s owner didn’t even live in Knox County. He had purchased the property in 2021 and was listing it as a short-term rental on the Airbnb website.
After some research showed her that there are essentially no regulations on short-term rentals in the unincorporated areas of Knox County, Clark appeared at County Commission last month seeking help.
“We would like to assure that this does not happen again to us or anyone else in Knox County,” she told commissioners.
In response, Commissioner Carson Dailey — whose district includes Bella Vista Lane and whom Clark had already spoken to about the issue — urged his colleagues to address the issue.
“I think Commission needs to look at an ordinance,” Dailey said. “Because a lot of these Airbnbs are owned by people out of state. And when they rent them, teenagers are coming in and destroying property.”
He was partly referring to the party's impact on the house itself, which Clark said included substantial vandalism and damages.
The only requirement the county currently makes of short-term rental owners is that they pay the same occupancy tax as hotels. Beyond that, there are no rules for where or how they operate.
Clark suggested that as a starting point commissioners could look at the City of Knoxville’s short-term rental ordinance, enacted in 2018. It requires permits for short-term rental operators; limits them in residential areas to owner-occupied properties; requires notification of neighbors that there will be a short-term rental operating at the property; and mandates that there must be an emergency contact able to respond to any complaints or concerns within 45 minutes.
The ordinance has not eliminated complaints about short-term rentals in the city, but Clark said it at least provides some rules.
“When this was going on, we didn’t know who to call,” she said. “We didn’t know who was responsible. We didn’t even know our neighbor didn’t live there.”
The Bella Vista Lane community’s concerns did not end when the party stopped. Although the listing for the property seems to have been taken down from Airbnb, it has now been put up for sale at an asking price of $549,000 for a 1,260-square-foot house.
To Clark and her neighbors’ dismay, the listing says the house “would make a great home or vacation home.” They put up some signs on their own properties saying they would not welcome another short-term rental operator. Clark said the signs all vanished overnight.
She noted that while her corner of East Knox County may seem remote from downtown Knoxville, it’s quite close to Sevier County and its multiple tourist destinations. She said the area could see an explosion of short-term rental activity.
“I think the probability of banning Airbnbs is slim, I don’t think that would happen in Knox County,” Clark said. “But I think they should have regulations in place.”
A state law passed in 2018 after heavy lobbying by Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms restricts local governments from prohibiting short-term rentals. But it does allow them some discretion in setting regulations for their operation.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is generally resistant to infringements on property rights. But Andrew Davis, Jacobs’ policy adviser, said the mayor was open to discussion of the issue. He said he expected possibly multiple proposals from commissioners in the coming months.
“It’s the mayor’s position that most of the issues with Airbnb cited during the discussion at the County Commission meeting could be resolved through enforcement of existing law,” Davis said in an email. ”However, he is open to working with the commissioners on this issue.”