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Regarding a short-term rental bylaw, Great Barrington agrees on 'Purpose and Intent' but little else

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The Hill neighborhood in Great Barrington in 2021. After five months of often contentious commentary and debate on a proposed bylaw to regulate short-term rentals, the Select Board this week unanimously agreed on the “Purpose and Intent” of it.

GREAT BARRINGTON — After five months of often contentious commentary and debate on a proposed bylaw to regulate short-term rentals, the Select Board this week unanimously agreed on the “Purpose and Intent” of it.

But the board did not come to agreement on several of the finer details that could have major consequences to property owners engaged in short-term, Airbnb-style rentals.

While one point of contention was erased at the board’s Monday meeting, others surfaced. At the same time, a town resident plans to submit a petition endorsing a less restrictive bylaw than that which is currently under review. 

The town currently has no restrictions on short-term rentals. The proposed bylaw’s primary author, Leigh Davis, has said she seeks to “discourage real estate speculation and protect and maintain the residential character of existing neighborhoods.”

But she's also drawn criticism for suggesting the town seek a rental bylaw to force property "prices back down to reasonable levels that restore balance to this community."

In a set of guidelines submitted for discussion at the Select Board’s meeting on Monday, Davis backed off from an earlier proposal that would have limited short-term rentals to those properties that serve as the owners’ primary residences. The board members seemed to support that change.

But Davis, the Select Board’s vice chair, also introduced proposals that drew fire from board member Ed Abrahams. Loosely based on a Lenox bylaw passed in 2019, Davis now seeks to limit short-term rentals of entire dwellings or units to 90 days per calendar year. Beyond that, she advocates that only up to two bedrooms should be permitted for year-round, short-term rental, and with the condition that the owner be present.

Among her other proposals is to limit short-term rental occupancy to two people per bedroom. She also proposes that if more than one dwelling unit exists on a single parcel, the 90-day limitation should apply to the entire parcel and that only one dwelling at a time on a parcel should be permitted as a short-term rental.

Abrahams questioned the 90-day limit. As to several other of the guidelines introduced by Davis, he said the proposed limits seem “arbitrary” and don’t make what he believes are important distinctions between rentals of smaller homes and larger homes and homes in close-fitting neighborhoods and homes on larger lots.

“The objection I have,” said Abrahams, “is that we're micromanaging what people do in their homes.”

In its effort to draft a bylaw to present to voters at the annual town meeting this spring, the board will again work on the draft bylaw at its meeting this Monday.

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Among the matters the board agrees to is that short-term rentals should be regulated, in some fashion.

On Monday, the Select Board unanimously agreed to the wording of the draft bylaw’s “Purpose and Intent,” which now says the town would use the authority granted to it under state law “to balance private, neighborhood, and municipal interest, including:

- Enabling residents to earn extra money from their properties to better afford to live here, maintain their properties, and contribute to the community;

- Minimizing public safety and health risks; and,

- Deterring commercial interests from buying housing to use primarily as short-term rental businesses.”

The majority of public commentary to the proposed bylaw, in its various stages, has been negative.

In a letter sent to the town following Monday’s meeting, Claudia Laslie, a Great Barrington resident, wrote, in part, “The proposed restriction to 90 days is not sufficient to address the needs of not only the storefronts, restaurants, service industries, Butternut, camps, private school parents’ weekends, festivals, etc., etc., but also for homeowners who may want to do better than to ‘cover their mortgage.’ I find this extremely concerning that the town wants to regulate people’s financial investment planning to ‘level the playing field.’”

Laslie, a Berkshire broker who specializes in high-end, longer stay vacation rentals, has started a petition that endorses her own proposed bylaw — “a more commonsense approach,” she said, which would be less restrictive than the proposal currently under review.

During the public comment period on Monday, John Londoner, of Francis Avenue, said that setting a 90-day limit on short-term rentals “is not very generous to people in my situation.” He owns a property that he uses for short-term rentals. Under a 90-day limit, he said he would only break even on his investment.

“Also, I would say that if you are someone in my situation who is running a full-time Airbnb, to only have it available for 90 days basically says that, for the other nine months out of the year, my house is uninhabited, and anybody who owns a home knows that the worst thing you can do for it is to leave it uninhabited,” he said.

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.

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