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Short-term rentals in Great Barrington

Short-term rental vote tabled in Great Barrington due to unexpected possible conflict

Select Board to ask state for opinion before Monday's meeting

Great Barrington Select Board short-term rentals

The Great Barrington Select Board Wednesday struggled with potential conflicts of interest. The issue has plagued a controversial short-term rental debate.

GREAT BARRINGTON — They were supposed to take a vote Wednesday on a hotly debated short-term rental bylaw, and now it is unclear whether they ever will.

Select Board members, instead, pointed fingers about each others’ possible conflicts. One recused himself, and the others might have to as well.

The matter is now tabled until the State Ethics Commission can sort it out. The board will meet and discuss the bylaw again Monday, when it will also hold a public input session about the proposed bylaw.

It was an anonymous email sent to the board, as well as to The Eagle, just before the Select Board meeting Wednesday that set off the current chain of events.

The email linked to three Airbnb listings, each one within 300 feet from the homes of Chairman Stephen Bannon, Vice Chair Leigh Davis and member Ed Abrahams. If weighing property issues, a financial interest is considered a conflict if an official is 300 feet within a property line in question, according to state conflict-of-interest law.

Abrahams said after receiving the email, he called the Ethics Commission, and the lawyer on duty told him he had to recuse himself on this basis. So he did. The others had only just seen the email, so neither took any immediate action.

But if all three cited in the email recused themselves, only one member — Garfield Reed — would remain able to vote, well short of a quorum.

Member Eric Gabriel recused himself earlier this year due to his ownership of long-term rental properties.

Bannon said he would put a freeze on discussions until the state weighs in.

He also said the board will work on a bylaw that requires disclosure at a public meeting of possible conflicts of interest after this reared up recently as a problem.

The proposed bylaw was introduced by Davis in response to the town’s longtime housing shortage, which was exacerbated by pandemic-related market conditions that have driven up prices and further reduced housing stock. It sets a cap of 90 days per year on short-term rentals.

Great Barrington, short-term rental crack down (copy)

Gilmore Avenue in Great Barrington last summer. Town officials are weighing a bylaw that would set limits on short-term rentals throughout town. 

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A report released Wednesday says the “housing predicament Berkshire County faces is the result of decades of inadequate housing production, coupled with deferred maintenance on existing housing stock and complicated or outdated state and local regulations.”

On Wednesday, Davis said she was trying to be a voice for those in town who have been “displaced” and generally do not attend municipal meetings. She backed off a previously harder stance.

“I’m not trying to belittle people or devalue what people say in terms of the benefits that they have from short-term rentals, but do hope that there is a middle ground,” she said.

Not everyone agrees that putting a limit on a way some residents make a living is going to solve the housing crisis — including Abrahams.

Will Great Barrington voters stand for a 90-day cap on short-term rentals? Annual town meeting will tell

Reed has aligned with Davis. Bannon has said he is in favor of regulating the rentals but does not appear entrenched.

The board has grown bitterly divided, with Abrahams alone poking holes in the proposal and fretting over what he perceived as a lack of data supporting the bylaw.

Also, Abrahams has the appearance of a conflict of interest because his domestic partner rents her former house through Airbnb. The commission told him, he said, that recusal wasn’t necessary, only that he disclose it with the town clerk’s office.

But he never announced it at a meeting, and Reed told Abrahams it was unfortunate he had to learn about his possible conflict in the media. And he was skeptical of Abrahams’ assertion that he and his partner do not share finances.

“Everyone knows that couples share things,” Reed said.

Abrahams noted that Reed, who works in a liquor store, had twice failed to recuse himself from board votes for liquor licenses, including for the store that employs him.

“An employee is a conflict of interest,” Abrahams said. “[Being] good friends is not.”

Bannon said the board must resolve the bylaw issue and move on to town governance on “vital issues.” He asked that passions be doused.

“For those of you who have made this a personal issue, I ask you to rethink your stance,” he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871.

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