Opposition brewing as Great Barrington mulls short-term rental regs

Claudia Laslie, left, and Tracy Thornton speak to the Great Barrington Select Board on Feb. 25 during a discussion about the town's proposed short-term rental regulations. The board is considering limiting short-term rentals in homes that are not owner-occupied to 90 days per year.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The town's short-term rental policy is still a work in progress.

But already there are rumblings that town officials are in for a battle if they try to curb what some homeowners say is their only way to make a living in a small town.

"The income pays for my son's college education," said Tracy Thornton, who owns two houses in Great Barrington, both of which she alternates renting for short periods, sometimes while living in one or the other.

"My husband travels to New York City for employment because there are no jobs here," she told the board.

During a meeting last week, the Select Board discussed the draft of the short-term rental policy, which calls for a limit of 90 days per year on the rental of an entire home where the owner is not present. That cap would also apply to a separate building on the same property. There would be no limit for homes that are owner-occupied in which rooms are rented.

The policy would also require short-term rentals to register with the town as well as the state; Massachusetts is the first in the U.S. to regulate and tax the short-term rental market. In December, Gov. Charlie Baker signed off on the law, effective July 1.

The new law adds an automatic 5.7 percent state tax to all rentals of 31 days or less. It also stipulates a local option tax of 6 percent, which the town in 2010 had voted to apply to all lodging.

But another optional 3 percent "community impact fee" doesn't appear likely to be implemented, said Select Board member Kate Burke, who co-authored the draft policy with fellow board member Bill Cooke. She said the regulations as they are now would not meet conditions required by the state's law to impose the fee.And the amount of revenue projected from such a fee is minimal, anyway, she added.

Burke and Cooke said the proposed regulations are a way to balance the need for short-term rentals, while controlling the potential for rentals to hurt the local housing market in ways that include affecting property values and taxes, and the supply of housing that is affordable for people who live and work in the area.

"What we want to discourage is to own a house just to rent it out on Airbnb — that takes it out of the rental or home-ownership market," Cooke said.

With the policy, the town would also "ensure a level playing field" by taxing rentals the way it does traditional lodging.

Burke said she is "on the fence" about the 90-day annual maximum for homeowners who want to rent their auxiliary dwellings, however.

Board members said the draft policy is a work in progress, and will have to be approved by voters at the annual town meeting in May.

Great Barrington is the latest town in the Berkshires to wrestle with the impact of a fast-growing rental economy driven by websites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway, as well as local rental companies.

In Lenox last year, after numerous public meetings, voters sent the town's draft policy back to officials for revision. The proposed Lenox policy would have, among other rules, restricted short-term rentals of entire homes to the time between Memorial Day to Labor Day, and then on weekends until Columbus Day.

Also, homeowners would have to apply for special permits from the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, and could not be transferred to new owners.

Striking balance

While the new state law gives local officials some much-needed support as they wade into controversial waters, one resident who is in the business of renting houses for a living said this market shouldn't be stifled. Her clients employ, at a "living wage," armies of local people like housekeepers and handymen who also need to make ends meet.

"People have their vacation dollars and their ski rental dollars, and if they can't afford to come here, they're going to go elsewhere," said Claudia Laslie, a real estate broker who is also president of Berkshire Rental Properties.

Laslie said that, in the Berkshires, 90 days is not enough. That's almost the full summer season, but doesn't include fall and ski season.

"There are well over 200 hundred days that people really like to come here to the Berkshires on a regular basis," she said.

Many of her homebuyers were previously rental clients, Laslie added. She said she's had young families decide to move here after renting multiple times.

Burke said the policy would ideally protect these benefits to the local economy while ensuring a saturated rental market doesn't drive out local workers.

"The other side of it is me hearing about people that have the trades that you need to help you run your homes. ... They can't afford to live here. They have to go further and further and further away ... so I think what we're trying to do is to find a way to strike a balance."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.