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A short-term rental bylaw in Great Barrington would not 'magically create' more long-term housing, some say

Great Barrington joint meeting

During a joint meeting of the Great Barrington Planning and Select boards Monday, town officials set the scope of a proposed bylaw regulating short-term rentals. 

GREAT BARRINGTON — While town officials inch closer toward a proposal to regulate short-term rentals, there is little agreement that any such regulation would accomplish one of its original objectives: that of freeing up significant housing units for much-needed long-term rentals.

“I think if we’re going to talk about housing, we need to talk about housing. Short-term rentals are not, in my opinion, co-related in any way,” Pedro Pachano, a member of the Planning Board, said Monday evening, at a joint meeting of the Planning Board and Select Board.

Town officials say that about 34 percent of Great Barrington’s 2,830 households are rental properties. About 180 of those households are available as short-term, vacation-style rentals. A proposed bylaw, in its current form, would make about 56 of those households ineligible for use as short-term rentals.

A primary goal behind the proposal to regulate short-term rentals has been to try to pressure second-home owners into the long-term rental market, or to sell. But, Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon acknowledged that the boards had gotten “tunnel vision” by thinking a bylaw could “magically create a lot of either workforce or affordable housing.”

Select Board member Ed Abrahams, too, said that making housing units ineligible for short-term rentals wouldn’t guarantee that the units would come on the market as long-term rentals.

“We don’t know how many of those are owned by second-home owners who can afford to not rent them and therefore they still won’t be available,” Abrahams said.

In order to go into effect, a bylaw restricting short-term rentals first would have to be approved at town meeting in spring.

Both boards agreed Monday that, as a draft bylaw continues to take shape, less emphasis should be placed on how effective it might be in freeing up long-term rentals in a town that currently has zero available long-term rentals.

What happens next?

The two boards agreed Monday that, because any proposed rental bylaw likely would be defined as a “zoning” matter (rather than one of general law), the Planning Board should prepare it for presentation at town meeting in May.

There is plenty of disagreement among the town’s elected officials about the effectiveness that such a bylaw could have in easing the town’s housing shortage.

The boards Monday unanimously agreed on the scope of the proposed bylaw, such that it would seek to do the following: ensure that the primary use of rentals remains residential; prevent long-term rental units from being replaced with short-term rentals; reduce the nuisance impacts of short-term rentals; and address issues and standards of health and safety.

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The Planning Board will begin its work Dec. 9, with the expectation of presenting a proposal to the Select Board in February.

The board won’t be starting from scratch. It will draw from a draft put together by Leigh Davis, vice chair of the Select Board. That draft seeks to limit short-term rentals to only primary residences; units/rooms within a primary residence; and to secondary units (barns, cottages, garages) on the same tax parcel as a primary residence.

Referring to the process ahead, Brandee Nelson, chair of the Planning Board, said: “We refine the language, and then we have a public hearing, and we refer it to the Select Board, and they put it on the warrant, and then we take it to town meeting.”

Davis said the draft she submitted would “discourage real estate speculation and protect and maintain the residential character of existing neighborhoods.” She said she drew from bylaws used in towns across the country, including Somerville, Cambridge and Boston, as well as Los Angeles, Washington, Denver and Killington, Vt.

“A few people have mentioned that, you know, they feel that investors and visitors are being portrayed as greedy,” Davis said, “and I’ve never said that. I’m just trying to find a way to restore the balance in our community.”

As it stands, anyone who owns a residence in Great Barrington, whether it’s a primary residence or otherwise, can rent it out any time they wish, for however long, or short, a period of time that they wish.

Mixed feelings

Monday night’s meeting, via Zoom, ran more than 2 ½ hours and drew about 30 people. When it came time for public comment, the opinions were mixed: some in favor of regulating short-term rentals and others against it.

“I really hope that we put this question out to town meeting about how we can do this regulation so that we don’t have people coming from outside who don’t live here, buying up properties and making them short-term rentals and just further contributing to this terrible housing shortage that we have,” said Laura Knoepler, of Housatonic.

Lucas Merchant, a property owner in town and the owner of Berkshire Vacation Rentals, joined with others in urging the drafters of the bylaw to factor in the positive effects of short-term rentals to the local economy and those who rely on the rental income.

“There are a lot of people who own second homes that are absolutely a part of the community in Great Barrington but need to offset the cost of their home by doing short-term rentals,” he said.

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

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