Waco city planners are scrambling to catch up with Waco’s hottest cottage industry: online vacation rentals.

City staffers in early September sent letters to 47 proprietors of short-term house rentals, advertised on sites such as Homestay, Airbnb and VRBO, and told them they need to get special zoning permits and pay occupancy taxes.

Those websites allow the public to rent everything from Baylor University-area student condos to suburban ranch houses to an Airstream trailer in the Cameron Park area. At least six of the listed properties were renovated on “Fixer Upper,” the HGTV show whose runaway success has contributed to a land rush for “homestay” properties in Waco.

“We do call it the Magnolia effect,” city planner Beatriz Wharton said. “Obviously, there’s a lot more tourism coming in now. At the same time, vacation rentals in general are a lot more popular.”

In their Sept. 6 letter, city officials gave proprietors a month to apply for a special permit, either for a “temporary rental unit” if the operator is off-site or a “bed-and- breakfast homestay” if the operator lives on-site.

As of Tuesday, 21 had submitted applications, and four said they would cease advertising their properties. Another five who had not been notified contacted the planning services department after reading news articles about the permitting issue.

Wharton said it will likely take months to process all the applications, and proprietors will be able to continue operating their rentals in the meantime.

Two applications won a recommendation for approval from the City Plan Commission on Tuesday and will head to Waco City Council. One was for the house at 822 N. 15th St., renovated on TV for Clint and Kelly Harp. The other property was a new outbuilding behind the Victorian house owned by Kathy Wise at 1825 Washington Ave.

Both houses are in neighborhoods with mixed-use zoning and have had little neighborhood controversy. The special permit, which costs $300 and lasts at least one year, spells out parking requirements and any conditions that planning officials may choose to add.

Waco City Council approved two other temporary rental unit permits in August: a suburban-style house at 5517 Lake Highlands Drive and a yet-to-be-built cottage at 718 S. Eighth St. near the Magnolia Silos.

While those cases have encountered little or no opposition, an application this month for a multiple-unit rental in the Cameron Park neighborhood has sparked controversy.

The property at 404 Baker Lane was supposed to go before the Plan Commission on Tuesday, but owner Kristi Bass pulled the application to allow more time to meet with concerned neighbors.

Bass, a real estate investor, bought the three-acre property in August from Todd and Lexia Meek, along with a renovated barn in Lacy Lakeview. The Lacy Lakeview house, dubbed the Barndominium, was featured on the third season of “Fixer-Upper.”

Bass is booking that house online as a short-term rental, drawing opposition from neighbors and prompting the city of Lacy Lakeview to begin revising its ordinances on such properties.

The Baker Lane property, which includes a house, a garage loft and two poolside cottages, was formerly used as temporary lodging for returning missionaries from Antioch Community Church. Planners said now that it is intended as a revenue-generating property, it requires a permit.

Neighbors’ complaints

Under the permit application, Bass could rent out four separate units, with a maximum of 13 people and eight cars on-site. Neighbors have complained that the plans constitute a commercial venture in a residentially zoned neighborhood.

Trent Dougherty, who lives next to the property and is president of the Cameron Park Neighborhood Association, said he fears the intended use could conflict with the quiet residential atmosphere of the street. He said he is not certain that modifying the application would satisfy his concerns.

“A significant portion of the association members don’t want any commercial use of the land at all except what’s already allowed without a special permit,” he said.

At a Plan Commission workshop last week, member LaRaine DuPuy raised similar concerns, saying the property is “totally exposed” to a street that contains “some of Waco’s most excellent historic homes.”

DuPuy said the Harp and Wise applications were for mixed-use neighborhoods and would have regular supervision from the owners.

“Even with Harp, he has a business next door,” she said, referring to Harp Design Co. “My concern is, who’s going to be overseeing this property?”

Bass said Tuesday that she hopes to allay neighbors’ concerns.

“We think it would be more advantageous for the neighbors to have an open house and Q&A, and let them get my vision and answer any looming fears and concerns,” Bass said. “The way I look at it, the way it has been running is primarily the way I’ll be running it, except mine will be for income and in shorter stints. In theory, it will be less people, less often than previously.”

Bass said she is considering putting a full-time caretaker on-site. And while the permit application shows a circle driveway along Baker Lane for parking, Bass said she will likely use existing parking farther into the site.

Dougherty, who has not yet talked to Bass, said her stated intentions are “interesting but not binding,” and would need to be reflected in the permit.

Dougherty said he worries about opening the door to commercial businesses in one of Waco’s signature residential neighborhoods.

“We moved to Waco in large part because of this neighborhood,” said Dougherty, a Baylor associate philosophy professor and avid cyclist. “We (neighbors) are a group of Waco cheerleaders. We all have the means to live elsewhere, but we love being close to downtown and the university.”

He said the tourism boom in Waco is exciting, but officials need to keep the long view.

“We want to see Waco thrive and be successful, but you can’t lose your head in these situations,” he said.

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