LENOX -- Several hundred area homeowners may be violating local zoning and safety codes by turning their residences into virtual inns, renting illegally to tourists for short periods of time -- a long-standing problem, according to local officials.
A call for action was delivered during an impassioned appeal to the Select Board on Wednesday night by Phil Halpern, co-owner of Brook Farm Inn for the past 13 years.
He cited 366 Lenox-area home-rental ads on several websites directed at vacationers -- homeaway.com, vrbo.com and airbnb.com -- to buttress his call for an enforcement crackdown by the Building Department, subject to approval by the Selectmen.
Local bylaws do not allow unregulated "transient rentals" in town -- specifically, an entire one- or two-family house or apartment for less than 30 days in any residential zone. Individual rooms in homes may be rented from June 1 through Labor Day and on weekends through Columbus Day, limited to three guests per house.
Opening what he acknowledged as a "can of worms," Halpern asserted that "everyone here knows someone -- a friend, a neighbor, maybe a relative -- who is renting rooms or houses in this town."
"A serious abuse of our zoning bylaws has occurred," he maintained, because of the Internet sites available to Lenox homeowners to advertise rentals year-round -- current ads list houses that sleep four, eight, nine, 14 and more visitors. Some have in-ground pools or barbecues and all include full kitchens, with minimum stays of two to seven nights.
"This is something that's going to be an ongoing process," cautioned Select Board Chairman David Roche. He said town departments and legal counsel would be consulted before any action is recommended.
Halpern said he consultated with town officials including Planning Board Chairwoman Kate McNulty-Vaughn, interim co-town Manager Mary Ellen Deming and Jeremy Richardson of the Building Department prior to making his case for enforcement. He said the town is losing out on lodging and restaurant tax revenue uncollected from home-rental clients. "Tourist taxes" currently yield about $1.8 million a year for Lenox.
"The town loses hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in room rent revenue and also loses restaurant revenue because these houses offer full kitchens," Halpern told the Selectmen.
Noting that current listings on rental websites can accommodate 1,000 visitors nightly -- translating to 500 rooms at an inn -- Halpern questioned why properties yielding income to owners are not subject to the town's higher commercial real estate tax rate.
He also raised potential safety issues, inadequate insurance liability coverage for transient rentals, and the potential for scams and fraud on Internet home-rental sites such as the loss of a deposit. "There's no protection for the consumer," Halpern contended.
Because legitimate hospitality businesses in town must pay for legally required alarms, sprinkler systems and other safety equipment, private homes spared from such expenses represent unfair competition, said Halpern.
"Our town bylaws were written to protect the character and charm of this community," he declared. "If we don't support the existing businesses, Lenox will change for the worse."
Halpern noted a competitive threat from proposed construction of new Marriott and Hilton hotels as well as the redeveloped Elm Court in Stockbridge -- "300 hotel rooms being built right on our borders," as he put it.
"You've brought up a significant point we need to address," Roche said. "We need to develop a comprehensive, intelligent policy that will be fair to everyone in the community."
He suggested it should take time, at least a few weeks, but Halpern disagreed, pointing out that vacation-home rentals are being advertised for the upcoming holiday and ski seasons. "My business is open year-round, and Berkshire Bank wants to be paid its mortgage year-round," he said.
"People don't even know when they're renting their house out for the weekend that they're doing something that's against the rules," Selectman John McNinch pointed out. "The fact that we're talking about it right now could be the first big step."
After Kemble Inn owner Scott Shortt questioned whether the town would adopt a new policy or enforce the current bylaw, McNinch and Selectman Channing Gibson indicated that seeking the best method of enforcement would be the priority.
"If there are people in an uproar because we're enforcing this, then that can be an issue for Town Meeting," McNinch said. "But we're not changing the bylaws without a town meeting."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto
What's Next ...
The Lenox Select Board will consider the following recommendations to deal with zoning bylaw violations by homeowners renting an entire house or apartment for less than 30 days through Internet vacation-home sites:
n "Cease and desist" letters to owners of all Lenox properties advertised on the Internet offering entire-house rentals for periods of less than 30 days.
n Fines on homeowners who violate bylaws by advertising
n Instructing offenders to remove all Internet advertising of short-term rentals; properties that fail to comply would be subject to daily fines.
n Anyone seeking to rent rooms seasonally as allowed by the bylaws is required to meet codes, submit to inspection by the Building and Fire departments and register with the town, or be subject to fines.