Lenox resident tries to start 'Berkshire property-owner rights' nonprofit amid short-term rental debate
LENOX — As a Planning Board working group continues public dialogue on whether year-round, short-term rentals of 30 days or less should be regulated, a local resident is trying to drum up support for a potential nonprofit organization "to protect the Berkshire lifestyle and property-owner rights."
Kelly Brown, whose primary residence is on East Street, told The Eagle "the process has run off the rails; it's being done without any input from short-term rental owners or merchants." He also claimed that the town is considering "severe restrictions" on short-term rentals by local property owners.
Brown, who also has a home in Revere, complained in a phone interview that public meetings on the issue are only held on two days' notice, making it difficult or impossible for him and others with a stake in the burgeoning short-term rental market to attend.
The retired attorney bought two ads in The Eagle recently seeking supporters for his proposed nonprofit, "Berkshire Involved Short-Term Rental Organization ("BISTRO"). He argued that most short-term rental property owners and merchants have little if any awareness of the Planning Board's frequent public meetings and informational forums to gather suggestions from the community.
"I've had a good response to the ads," Brown said, "and I expect more after the first of the year. I'm offended by the process, that's why I'm involved. I'm trying to do the right thing for Lenox."
Asked for his recommendations, he urged the town to send letters to all property owners who offer short-term rentals. "Merchants need to be more fired up about this so everybody is aware and takes appropriate action," he said.
Several Planning Board members as well as Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller said they've been in touch with Brown, seeking to address his concerns.
"I've told him we're happy to take his input in any form at any time," said Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber, who's also on the Short Term Rentals Subcommittee.
The Planning Board's subcommittee, which also includes representatives of the Finance Committee, Select Board and the town's Affordable Housing Trust, has been meeting weekly since mid-autumn and publicized two Nov. 14 public forums.
The subcommittee is also conducting an online survey through Jan. 15 to gauge residents' opinions on short-term rentals through Airbnb or similar sites and their impact on tourism and the character of residential neighborhoods. The survey is available at townoflenox.com and at lenoxplanningboard.com.
In a followup discussion this past week, Planning Board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan, who's also on the town's Affordable Housing Trust, said the Town Hall public forums were well-received — "people felt they were being listened-to" and that there was positive interaction in small discussion groups on the pros and cons of short-term rentals.
"I heard a lot about leveling the playing field between the traditional innkeepers and the short-term rental owners, and also concern about neighborhood character," Miller said.
Miller and Kueber noted that some innkeepers are listing their rooms on Airbnb and similar online sites.
Kueber also noted an upside to the online short-term housing phenomenon — it helps boost tourism while introducing newcomers to the Lenox area, she said.
"We've had a few comments from people who have said, `Are we sure we have a problem? Don't go fixing a problem that isn't there,'" Kueber pointed out. "It's an issue that's affecting so many communities, there are many just like us that are grappling with the exact same issues. So I don't think we're out of step."
"We're just trying to figure out what might be a problem, and it's good and timely that we're having these conversations," added Deborah Rimmler, a Planning Board member.
State lawmakers and communities across Massachusetts — including Salem, Cambridge and Boston — are dealing with the impact of short-term rentals. Lenox is not necessarily "in the hot seat," Kueber said. However, as Miller pointed out, Lenox is the first Berkshire County community to be confronting the controversy formally.
At the two Nov. 14 informational forums held at Town Hall and attended by least 50 people, Kueber emphasized that the definition of short-term rentals of rooms in owner-occupied housing applies to 30 days or less.
The board's study of potential regulations does not apply to a year-round homeowner who remains in the house while renting a spare bedroom occasionally or frequently for short stays from Memorial Day weekend to Columbus Day weekend, which is permitted by the town's zoning regulations.
Renting an entire house for 31 days or more at a time also is permitted year-round as a residential use, and there is no effort to impose any restrictions, Kueber emphasized.
The Planning Board group has determined through hostcompliance.com, which monitors short-term rental activity, that in early November there were 164 Lenox listings for 124 "unique properties." Some B&Bs appear to be listing their rooms on sites such as Airbnb.
Miller, the land use director and town planner, questioned whether available year-round housing is taken off the market for use as short-term rentals, "and how does this impact the character of our residential neighborhoods."
"Does it create an uneven playing field for our existing inns and hotels?" she asked. "Is it safe for guests or visitors coming to Lenox? Are they able to have a safe experience if these units aren't undergoing the same review and enforcement that the commercial uses are forced to undergo."
On the other hand, Miller said, the short-term rental phenomenon may improve housing values and enable homeowners to earn a supplementary income in order to remain in the properties.
"It's also another way to attract visitors into the community," she added. "Not everyone today is looking for a traditional B&B or hotel experience. They might want an entire home for a weekend to host their family."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-637-2551.
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