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Short-term rentals in Great Barrington

Great Barrington's proposed short-term bylaw continues to be a source of disunity

GB select board screenshot

The Great Barrington Select Board will continue to discuss a proposed short-term housing rental bylaw. Its next meeting is March 7.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Division once again was on full display Monday evening as the town’s Select Board grappled with the details of drafting a bylaw to regulate short-term housing rentals.

The meeting began with Leigh Davis, the board’s vice chair and chief author of the proposed bylaw, defending the proposal against misconceptions that she said have spread on social media. The meeting continued with a fellow board member, Ed Abrahams, referring to a recent revision Davis made to the draft as “sneaky.”

The meeting concluded as many meetings before it have: with a lot of public comment, a good deal of it emotional. About 20 homeowners spoke Monday.

Town officials have been working since September to prepare the wording of a bylaw to present to voters at the annual town meeting in May.

In her efforts to limit short-term, Airbnb-style rentals in a popular destination town that has pressed for long-term housing that local workers can afford, Davis appears to have majority support among Select Board members. But, the majority of public commentary on the various drafts has been negative.

Among the most contentious elements has been the proposed limit of short-term rentals of a residence to 90 days a year. The 90-day limit would apply only if the homeowner is not present.

Seeking to clarify some misconceptions, Davis said that any continuous rentals in excess of 30 days would not fall into the short-term-rental definition and would “not be impacted by any short-term-rental proposal.”

But, on Monday, an older issue of contention resurfaced when the board read through Davis’ recent draft. In it, she made a distinction between what primary residents were permitted to do and what second-home owners were permitted to do.

“We’re back to differentiating between primary residents and second-home owners?” Abrahams asked, clearly displeased.

“Yes,” Davis said.

“OK, that was sneaky,” Abrahams responded.

Davis is proposing that while a full-time resident/owner could offer two separate entire dwelling units for short-term-rental use (providing that one of the dwelling units is their primary residence), a nonresident or part-year resident would be allowed to offer only one dwelling unit for short-term rental.

“Just because they don’t live here 183 days [a year], we’re treating them differently, which this group, this board, had decided not to do, and that divides the community,” Abrahams said.

Board Chair Stephen Bannon also expressed surprise that the distinction once again was introduced.

“I’m really uncomfortable with second-home owners being treated differently than primary homeowners,” he said.

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“I think limiting one property as a commercial enterprise from someone that is not full time here is fair,” Davis said. “All we’re doing is saying, ‘Listen, we’re glad you’re here as a second-home owner. You know, use your property, make money off it, but please do not buy an additional investment property, because we have a housing shortage and we really want to make it possible for people looking for homes to actually live here full time.’”

Board member Garfield Reed agreed with Davis. The fifth board member, Eric Gabriel, has recused himself from the matter because he owns rental property.

When it came time for public comment, the viewpoints spanned the spectrum — from those who said the proposal wasn’t strict enough, to those who questioned the constitutionality of limiting short-term rentals.

“I would just appreciate if the rules get even stronger than this,” James Manning, of Main Street, told the board. “It’s fine to rent out rooms in your house, but it’s not a good idea to buy a house and rent out that house on a short-term basis, which is a hotel. It’s a commercial interest.”

Many of the people who have spoken out against the proposal say they believe it would have little or no impact on freeing up housing for long-term rentals or adding housing stock at a price that would be affordable for most local workers.

“It’s not going to change anything about the housing crisis in Great Barrington,” said Francois Coeytaux, of South Egremont Road. “All of this proposal is, in my mind: There’s no facts. It’s all based on the opinions of one, mainly, member of this board. Maybe she doesn’t want to have any of those Airbnbs near her.”

“Let’s not get into personality and why someone wants something,” Bannon interjected.

“You have to, because there’s one ...,” Coeytaux said.

“You don’t have to,” Bannon said.

“ ... One person is running the show here,” Coeytaux said.

“I think the other three board members would disagree with you,” Bannon said.

Mike Peretti, of Seekonk Cross Road, said a 90-day limit would “sink” him. He said he supplements his income through short-term rentals.

“There’s people coming here and sucking up houses and doing short-term,” he said. “It happens every single week, and I’m seeing it.”

But, he added, “You’re going to hurt a lot of people that are really scratching out a living here.”

The Select Board will continue to discuss the bylaw. Its next meeting is March 7, beginning at 6 p.m.

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

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