LENOX -- Despite a recent legal opinion that short-term rentals are permitted by town homeowners, concerned innkeepers are planning to voice continuing concerns to the Select Board at tonight's 7 p.m. meeting.
"The general consensus is that we have to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the Selectmen to resolve the issue," said Phil Halpern, co-owner of Brook Farm Inn. Halpern led a group of 17 local innkeepers who first raised the issue of short-term rentals last October, describing a competitive threat to their businesses as well as alleged violations of town bylaws.
Town counsel Kopelman and Paige recently weighed in on the issue, finding that homeowners can legally rent their entire houses, apartments or condos to visitors for brief periods of a month or less, as well as for longer periods.
But Halpern said that opinion "leaves things unanswered. The issue is unresolved; doing nothing is not an option."
Rookwood Inn owner Amy Lindner-Lesser, who also plans to address the Select Board tonight, told The Eagle she believes the town counsel's written opinion amounts to "incomplete information."
"We would like to see some action from the Select Board to regulate rented houses so they comply with basic safety and health rules," she said, adding that the town is leaving tax revenue "on the table." In her view, owners of houses being rented out to tourists for brief periods should pay some fees to the town and be subject to inspections for fire, health and food-safety issues.
"If any visitor has a bad experience, the town would bear the brunt of it," Lindner-Lesser stated, adding that she was not referring to potential lawsuits.
Halpern and Lindner-Lesser declared that, since other innkeepers are unable to attend the Wednesday meeting, any further discussion or decisions should be deferred.
Attorney Joel Bard of Kopelman and Paige sent his four-page written opinion to Town Hall more than two weeks ago in response to innkeepers' contentions that, because of Internet websites catering to renters and vacationers, short-term full-house rentals have become more common.
In a signed petition, Halpern and his group had argued that homeowners were violating town bylaws that the proprietors viewed as not allowing rentals of entire homes for less than 30 days. Based on his analysis of town bylaws, Bard wrote that he found no restrictions on either the long- or short-term rental of entire dwellings.
Citing sections of the bylaws regulating the rental of individual rooms in a home, Bard's opinion stated that "it is notable that these provisions pertain to the ‘renting of rooms' and not to the rental of entire dwellings."
Those regulations "cannot be read as imposing durational limitations on the rental of entire buildings," he wrote. "There should be no town-initiated zoning enforcement against owners of properties who periodically rent their dwellings" for less than 30 days, the legal opinion stated.
Gateways Inn co-owner Eiran Gazit had voiced disappointment with the legal opinion. "The Internet was a game-changer," he wrote in an e-mail. "When people rent properties for just a weekend, the problem is that the innkeepers lose money, and as a result the town loses money. This does not make sense."
The Kopelman and Paige letter stated that the town faces no legal liability on any issues relating to short-term home rentals since no town bylaws are being violated.
Even if such laws were on the books, Bard wrote, there is no liability for failing to enforce local rules. "The law recognizes that it is not feasible to enforce all violations and therefore relieves public entities from that global obligation," the attorney's opinion added.
But Bard acknowledged that some towns on Cape Cod choose to impose their own regulations on homeowners. In Dennis, for example, the town code requires that owners of rented-out dwellings comply with state or local health codes, limit the number of occupants and pay an annual fee to Town Hall.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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