LENOX — It's a hot-button issue even in the cold of mid-winter: Should town government consider regulations on short-term rentals for less than 30 days, typically booked online on Airbnb, VRBO and other sites?
The third and final public community forum to debate the pros and cons of the burgeoning short-term rental market and its potential impact on local neighborhoods will be this Saturday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Lenox Town Hall auditorium, 6 Walker St. Two previous discussions in mid-November attracted about 50 residents and business owners for lively, informal conversations on the issue.
The event will begin with a brief slideshow presentation outlining the details of the controversy, according to announcements from Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller and from Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber. Group discussions on topics related to short-term online home and apartment rentals will follow.
Miller and Kueber have emphasized that short term rentals involve bedrooms or entire houses and apartments for fewer than 30 days.
Long-term house or bedroom rentals for a full month or two in the summer, longtime local traditions, are not part of the discussion. These are allowed under zoning regulations and no change is proposed.
The study of potential regulations also 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, as permitted by the town's zoning regulations.
Renting an entire house for 30 days or more at a time also is permitted year-round as a residential use.
Any recommendations for new rules on short-term, online rental policies that may be approved by the Planning Board would still require a two-thirds supermajority by registered voters, possibly at next November's semi-annual town meeting.
"This issue has a lot of tentacles into the community," Kueber observed. "We want to make sure people who care about it are comfortable with how we arrive at potential solutions." The Planning Board intends to keep the discussions going into the spring and beyond before issuing any proposals for voters to consider.
As Miller pointed out, "short-term rentals come in different shapes and sizes."
Participants in this Saturday's forum will be asked to share their thoughts on houses or apartments purchased by investors for commercial purposes for the rapidly expanding online rental market. Also up for discussion are "accessory dwelling units" such as attached apartments or detached guest houses that are rented to visitors for less than 30 days.
Miller is also seeking feedback from residents about the effects of short-term rentals on their neighborhoods — "what do you think are reasonable and fair ways to balance this use and neighborhood character considering your long-term vision for Lenox?"
The upcoming event is a repeat of the Planning Board's Nov. 14 workshops. It's scheduled for the weekend to accommodate part-time residents like Kelly Brown, who has organized a group of 10 to 15 concerned homeowners and business owners to attend the session. Brown, who rents out his separate guest house, is an East Street resident.
Kueber, co-chair with Deborah Rimmer of the Planning Board's subcommittee focusing on short-term rentals, notes that the economy of Lenox is strongly based on the hospitality industry.
About 37 million Americans used online services such as Airbnb for brief stays in 2017, according to the online research website Statista. Last summer, about 300 Lenox area properties were listed on Airbnb and similar sites; more recently, there were 133.
"At the same time, Lenox derives much of its vitality from year-round residents," Kueber stated, "and it's likely that residents and visitors alike don't want the town to lose its unique character."
She described the goal of the Planning Board's team exploring the issue as "gathering input from citizens throughout Lenox to assess both the opportunities and concerns presented by short-term rentals. Then, together as a community, we can decide how they will fit into our long-term vision for our town. We really do want to hear from everybody. We're not rushing into policy ideas at this point."
Presenting key findings from the Nov. 14 small-group workshops, Kueber told the Select Board recently that many participants wanted to protect their neighborhood character because "people would be moving in and out." They also want to level the playing field with the hospitality industry's inns, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels by collecting taxes on rooms and properties as well as licensing and inspections.
"There was also recognition that short-term rentals do add to our tourism base," Kueber commented. There was acknowledgement that there are different types — rentals with the property owner staying or leaving, as well as investor units that are continuous short-term rentals.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all approach that we should be taking," according to the participants described by Kueber.
There are also examples of people who rent short-term, experience the local lifestyle and then decide to move to Lenox, she added.
The Planning Board's subcommittee also includes members of the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the Affordable Housing Committee.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com or 413-637-2551.