STOCKBRIDGE — With about 100 of the town’s 650 full-time residences active in short-term rentals at any given time through Airbnb, VRBO and other online platforms, the Select Board has drafted a bylaw to register and regulate the burgeoning sector of the hospitality industry.
At its Thursday meeting, board member Patrick White commented that the town anticipates no issues with “well-behaved operators.” But, he acknowledged a potential challenge with “folks who want to use the law to skirt regulations.”
After extensive discussion, the board voted to refer the proposed bylaw to the Planning Board for a public hearing. As drafted, it would not limit the total number of days per year that a property could be offered for short-term rentals.
White urged another look at the bylaw in a year, if it’s approved by the Planning Board and annual town meeting voters, to see if it’s strong enough for enforcement with “problem operators.”
He cautioned that “in surrounding communities, many of these haven’t passed, so, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t overreach, because there’ll be some folks who don’t want burdensome regulations on their property.”
If the number of homes occupied by full-time residents continues to drop from the current 650 by an additional 100, White suggested future discussion of “whether we want to protect residential homeownership and the residential character of this town.”
Key provisions of the proposed bylaw applying to short-term rentals of 31 consecutive days or fewer include:
• Annual registration of short-term rental properties with the town clerk, including ownership details, contact information for a “local responsible party,” such as a manager, in case of problems, complaints or an emergency, the name of a booking agent, such as a Realtor, if any, and a copy of a registration certificate with the state Department of Revenue;
• Compliance with all local and state health and safety requirements, including smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and a septic or municipal sewer system, through a document signed under penalties of perjury;
• Prohibition of residential property short-term rentals by corporations other than an LLC, by owners of residences designated as affordable or otherwise income-restricted, or by “professionally managed units” defined by state law, such as an owner of multiple properties;
• Prohibition of rentals involving properties with current violations of building and fire codes or Board of Health regulations, town general bylaws, zoning bylaws, Planning Board regulations and Conservation Commission regulations;
• Adequate off-street overnight parking for guest-occupant vehicles;
• A required local manager able to respond within two hours to any problem or complaint and within 30 minutes of an emergency, with fines imposed if not in compliance;
• Prohibition of events that include tents or amplified music that normally would require a license or permit;
• Occupancy limitations according to legal requirements per dwelling, and no media advertising exceeding the legal occupancy limit, subject to daily fines if violated.
Additional regulations would bar the use of a commercial trash receptacle, such as a dumpster, on the property and would allow inspections by the Board of Health, Fire Department or building inspector if there are complaints.
If there are three or more violations within one year, the Select Board could vote to deny registration renewal.
Penalties for violating any provision of the bylaw would be $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second and $300 for a third and each subsequent offense. Each day of a continuing violation is defined as a separate offense.
In response to resident Stephen Stern’s request to clarify the prohibition of events, Town Administrator Michael Canales said the bylaw provisions disallow “anything that would require a license or permit.”
But, current town bylaws allow amplified music and rental of a small 10-foot-by-10-foot tent without a permit at a residential property during certain hours, he pointed out.
If music is too loud, a complaint can be made to police, Select Board Chairman Ernest “Chuck” Cardillo noted.
“We can’t overstep our legal boundaries,” Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey pointed out.
Stern asserted that a “bad actor” in town is the reason for a bylaw to regulate short-term rentals, and he questioned how strongly it would deter violators.
“Where are the teeth to this?” he asked.
McCaffrey suggested that “truly bad apples” with multiple violations would rack up considerable fines, which should be a deterrent. She noted that, currently, there is only one violator out of over 100 short-term rental operators.
Nonpayment of fines would lead to court action, Canales stated.
For chronic violators who play the game of changing their LLC status to evade enforcement, “there’s only so much we can do,” he explained.
Canales noted that, in other communities, short-term rental bylaws “have spent years at town meeting without getting passed. There’s still a chance we may have nothing. This is our first attempt at doing something, and we would use our legal and enforcement teams to do as much as we can. But, if somebody wanted to, there are ways around almost anything.”
“The bottom line is, make it as inconvenient and costly by actually going after the fines. If it becomes too inconvenient or costly, they may just decide to move elsewhere,” McCaffrey predicted.