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Short-term rentals in Great Barrington

This town leader seeks short-term rental restrictions for Great Barrington. Now the state says she has a conflict of interest

Great Barrington Select Board

The Great Barrington Select Board meets virtually Wednesday after Chair Stephen Bannon, top center, read a statement announcing that he and board member Ed Abrahams have been cleared of ethics concerns by the State Ethics Commission. Vice Chair Leigh Davis, bottom left, has not. The commission says she has a conflict of interest based on the location of her home near an Airbnb location. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — A standoff between Select Board members over regulating short-term rentals has taken a surprising turn with the state’s ruling this week that the board member driving the issue has a conflict of interest because she lives too close to an Airbnb location.

Closer, apparently, than two other board members in their neighborhoods.

The State Ethics Commission this week informed the town’s attorney that Vice Chair Leigh Davis, who started the regulation talks, has a conflict. But the board’s chairman, Stephen Bannon, and member Ed Abrahams do not.

“The Ethics Commission based its determination on the location of board members’ properties and the distance between those properties and the applicable short-term rental properties that were identified,” Bannon said, reading from a statement Wednesday.

He said he would postpone discussions on the issue while Davis speaks with commission staff. Davis later told The Eagle she is “seeking clarity” from them.

Board member Eric Gabriel early on recused himself on the advice of the commission because he owns rental properties; member Garfield Reed appears to not have a potential conflict.

The Airbnb matter had been placed on Wednesday’s agenda, pending the commission’s advice, for a public input session that’s been delayed for more than a month as the town’s attorney worked with commission lawyers.

The proposed bylaw is a response to the community’s housing shortage and high prices, and would cap short-term renting to 90 days per year. If the board approves it, it will go onto the town meeting warrant no later than May 27.

But not everyone thinks the 90-day cap will solve the housing problem; some residents say the rentals allow them to bring in extra money in a difficult economy.

Abrahams, alone on the board, doesn’t want to see the cap.

The issue has divided the panel and curdled discourse. Residents on both sides have worked to identify potential conflicts among board members, to keep the opposing side from voting.

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Abrahams was accused of a conflict because his domestic partner rents a home on Airbnb. Abrahams had disclosed this to the town, but did not announce it publicly. He said an Ethics Commission attorney told him he could deliberate.

Then came an anonymous email shortly before a March 30 public input session.

The sender pinpointed the distance between the homes of Bannon, Abrahams and Davis to properties rented on Airbnb, and suggested all three were in conflict.

Abrahams immediately recused himself and Bannon paused the proceedings.

Upon commission advice this week, Bannon and Abrahams filed disclosures with the town clerk explaining their own potential for a conflict, and why they think they can deliberate objectively on a bylaw that could go before voters at annual town meeting next month.

Davis told The Eagle she is frustrated, and has questions about the commission’s ruling. She can’t talk about the details.

“It’s a very sensitive moment in time,” she said.

When asked if she thinks the ruling could affect other communities with regulations, given how many officials might live near an Airbnb location, she said that is possible and could set a precedent. This could be why it is taking so long, she added.

Davis says she wants to get the proposal in front of voters as a matter of “self-determination and democracy.”

“I just want to finish the work that’s been done,” she said.

Residents who favor the regulation are angered by the delay over the ethics question. Nan Wile called the pause “a gag order on democracy,” in an email to board members and reporters.

“I’m furious that after electing people to represent us — we (the residents) are not let into the conversation,” Wile wrote. “How can you — how can any board member allow it?”

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

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