NORTH ADAMS — A long-debated proposal to regulate short-term rentals, like those rented through Airbnb and Vrbo, may soon be finalized.
After multiple public hearings, edits and a recent approval from the Planning Board, a proposed city ordinance first introduced in February is scheduled to be back before the City Council tonight for what could be a final vote.
Short-term rental owners who spoke to The Eagle had mixed opinions on the proposed rules. City officials and city councilors appear to be supportive of the proposal, though some see it as just a first step.
“This ordinance isn’t perfect,” Councilor Ashley Shade said at a meeting in late November. “There’s still things that will need to be tweaked along the way. But we have to have something on the record.”
What would this ordinance do?The seven-page drafted proposal requires short-term rentals to register with the city and be inspected annually. It has safety measures like requiring owners to post emergency exit diagrams and contacts. If the owner doesn’t primarily live at the property or adjacent to it, then there has to be a designated managing agent within a 25-mile radius of the rental.
It would allow short-term rentals at owner-occupied properties by right — without a special permit — in nearly all zones of the city. Professionally-managed units must get a special permit in some zones of the city, and other parts of the city would require just a site plan approval.
It also spells out specifically what part of the state building code different types of short-term rentals would need to meet depending on factors like if the owner lives on the property and the type and size of the building. If a homeowner lives at the single-family house they rent out, for example, they simply have to meet the requirements of a single family home, while professionally-managed units in multi-family properties have to meet the building code requirements hotels are subject to.
Social events at the rentals would be limited to ten people, and certain “problem properties” would be ineligible for short-term rental.
Why is this being proposed?Safety has been a key motivating issue that city officials and councilors have cited throughout the last year.
Unlike apartments, short-term rentals in the city don’t need to be inspected. “I’m aware of people who have actually rented out Airbnbs because their space would not pass to be an apartment,” City Councilor Keith Bona said in January. “That, to me, was a big red flag.”
There is no way to know exactly where short-term rentals are in the city and a registration process would provide that information.
Another issue the rule seeks to solve: Current city zoning doesn’t allow for short-term rentals in residential areas, according to the city’s building inspector Bill Meranti, who was involved in creating the proposed rules.
“The city of North Adam has no rules, regulations, anything regarding-short term rentals,” Zachary Feury, then a project coordinator in the Office of Community Development, said earlier this year. “It’s not listed as an allowed use in the zoning code.” The proposal changes the city zoning.
What do some short-term rental owners think?
Several years ago, Emily Hobson bought a vacant house on Brooklyn Street, renovated it, and turned it into a short-term rental. She lives in California and bought the home to vacation in and potentially as a place to retire one day, and she’s been renting it for short periods since 2019.
Though she has some questions, she is relatively at peace with the drafted rules.
“I think this proposal solves a lot of the problems that the previous one had,” she said, referring to a proposal introduced earlier this year. After multiple meetings and public input, the council decided to send it back to the mayor’s office for editing and a new version was unveiled this fall.
Hobson was disappointed that there was no virtual way to attend a late-November public hearing on the proposal — because she lives out of state, she could not attend.
Already, she has some guests booked for summer and she is concerned about how the inspection process would play out.
“It’s unclear how they are going to administer this,” she said. “Am I provisional until I get my inspection … What’s the inspection process? Do I have to cancel all of my current and future guests who have put down [money] nine months in advance?”
Meranti said his department will work with owners for timely inspection scheduling.
“The intent of this was never to stop people from doing it [short-term rentals]. We’re just creating a way where they do it safety,” he told The Eagle.
Brian Miksic’s company, Very Good Property Development, manages some short-term rentals for owners.
“What I’ve gotten from a lot of people who run Airbnbs, including our own clients, is most of them welcome oversight, because it’s necessary and needed to make sure that simple safety measures are in place in all of these establishments,” he said. As chair of the city’s Planning Board, he’s had to recuse himself from votes and discussions about the proposal.
“I think most people are in favor of these things as long as the oversight doesn’t become onerous to doing business. Some people will still disagree with what I’m saying but I don’t see the current (proposed) ordinance as onerous. I am worried about how the city is actually going to enforce any of this. I don’t personally believe they have staff to do it.”
Michael Lord co-owns a ranch house that’s been in his family since 1978 and is now used as a short-term rental through Airbnb.
His biggest concern about the proposal: “We’re lumped into this concept of a business when it’s our family home,” he said. “We don’t see ourselves as a traditional business. We are not trying to make a profit we’re just trying to offset some expenses. It’s our family home.”
He sees the requirement to have a local agent in charge within a 25-mile radius as “a bit arbitrary.” He now lives in Maryland, and his sister is 38 miles from the property, making her ineligible to fulfill the local agent requirement.
Like some other owners, Lord is concerned about what it could mean for him to meet the building code requirements — because he doesn’t live at the single-family home, it has to meet the requirements that apartment houses, boarding homes and non-transient hotels are subject to in the state code.
Over the past year, other owners have expressed anxiety and uncertainty about potentially costly changes they might need to make to their property to meet the state’s building code.
What types of features may need to be added or changed, if any, depends on the building, Meranti said.
“My position has always been that if you’re going to run one of these ... nobody likes the term but that little miniature hotel, the best investment you can have up front is having that design professional go through and tell you what you need to do to make this building compliant with the building code,” Meranti said last month. “They may very well come up with little to do. They may very well come up with much more than you’re willing to do.”
Like Lord, Barbara Alexander takes issue with building code provisions.
“The idea that such hotel-type requirements should be applied to single-family residences is not logical,” she told the Council.
She also is opposed to provisions that require some short-term rentals to get a special permit from the Planning Board in certain zones of the city. She fears neighbors weighing in.
“An individual owner’s financial future should not depend on the luck of the draw in terms of whether they have friendly neighbors or not,” she told the City Council in late November.
Though some owners are concerned the proposal is onerous, Councilor Wayne Wilkinson feels differently: If it’s run like a business, it will be treated like one, he said last month at a public hearing.
“If you want to run a business in the city of North Adams,” he said, “you’re going to have to meet the same responsibilities of everyone else that runs a business in the city of North Adams.”
How big of a business are short-term rentals in the city, anyway?There are 107 short-rentals in the city, according to a state registry database, which lists the street rentals are on but not the specific address.
It’s a million-dollar industry in North Adams alone. The city’s 6 percent rooms tax applies to short-term rentals, and that brought in $96,217 to the city in fiscal year 2022, state Department of Revenue data shows. That means that short-term rentals brought in an estimated $1.6 million in revenue that year.
The city could be getting more funds from short-term rentals. Under state law, municipalities can enact a community impact fee, which North Adams has not done but says in the proposed ordinance that it’s on the table if City Council wants to pursue it.