Lenox Planning Board invites residents to workshop to weigh in on local effects of Airbnb

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LENOX — Is the short-term online home rental phenomenon making it harder for families to move into town as investors take some reasonably priced houses and apartments off the market? Are Airbnb and its competitors making it harder for renters to find year-round housing?

Those issues, along with consideration of potential new regulations, will be prime topics as the town's Planning Board invites interested residents to attend a 90-minute workshop Tuesday to offer their views and get their questions answered.

The community roundtable discussions will focus on rentals of bedrooms, entire houses or apartments of 30 days or less booked through Airbnb, Expedia's HomeAway and VRBO.

As many as 500 Lenox and Stockbridge listings for short-term rentals appeared on Airbnb's site alone last summer; currently, there are about 300.

More travelers are choosing home rentals rather than hotels and inns. A report issued by Airbnb recently stated that Berkshire homeowners earned nearly $2 million last summer by renting to Tanglewood performers, staffers and concertgoers.

According to a Planning Board announcement, the goal of the community roundtable sessions is to hear the views of residents and others interested in the pros and cons of short-term rentals. Following a Power Point introduction prepared by Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller and presented by Planning Board short-term rental subcommittee members, smaller group discussions will be held.

Participants can attend either the 3 to 4:30 p.m. or the 6 to 7:30 p.m. session on Nov. 14 at the Lenox Town Hall Auditorium. Advance registration is encouraged online at lenox_str.eventbrite.com or lenoxplanningboard.com, by e-mail at gmiller@townoflenox.com or by calling 413-637-5500, ext. 1203.

Residents, frequent visitors, owners or hosts of short-term rental units, owners or managers of hotels, inns, B&Bs and other businesses, and people who work for local cultural organizations will be asked to weigh in on the impact of short-term rentals.

Topics include "reasonable and fair ways to balance this use with neighborhood character, considering your long-term vision for Lenox," the Planning Board announcement stated.

"We'll get a lot of interest from people who are Airbnb landlords as a business," said David Neubert of the Finance Committee and a member of the Planning Board's subcommittee on short-term rentals. "I've talked to people who are buying small houses that would otherwise go to families and making them into businesses."

"So I think the question is: Are short-term rentals constraining home availability to people who can barely afford to get here?" said Planning Board chairwoman Pam Kueber at a recent board subcommittee meeting. She cited studies showing high demand from young families for housing in Lenox.

Neubert, citing anecdotal reports, commented that "the tragedy is that somebody buys a home to be rented through Airbnb during the summer and then it sits empty all winter, when it could be rented to a family with children. Renters are still part of the community."

However, during public comment local architect Jim Harwood urged caution in "trying to solve a problem that I don't think exists at the moment. The dynamics here are working for us and I don't see it harming us. I see it helping us."

Planning Board member Deborah Rimmler maintained that limiting the ability of investors to purchase homes for use as short-term rental properties could lower property values for all homeowners.

The current Lenox zoning bylaw limits short-term rentals of rooms to 30 days or less to a maximum of three guests, seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with weekend-only rentals permitted through Columbus Day. Those rentals must be in an owner-occupied dwelling and are not allowed during the rest of the year.

The bylaw also requires a certificate of occupancy issued by the Building Department with annual inspections, and it specifies that a home being rented to short-term guests must be the legal residence of the owner "with lodging as an accessory use." But there has been no enforcement of the regulations.

There are no restrictions on longer-term rentals, as many residents traditionally rent out space to BSO musicians and other staffers as well as Shakespeare & Company actors for a month or two, or even longer, during the summer.

Possible changes to short-term rental bylaws could be submitted to voters at next May's annual town meeting.

"We need to get answers on investor houses and accessory dwelling units, very specifically out of these sessions," Kueber explained. "And then we need community values to be discussed, there are no easy answers, but maybe we can get them to agree we favor this over this."

"It may not actually be a problem yet that we need to solve," Neubert asserted. "Maybe the market might accidentally kind of fix it."

He agreed that "there's definitely more" online short-term rentals, "but it seems to be working out well."

"At the end of the day, it doesn't even matter what we think, it's what the town thinks," Rimmler pointed out.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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