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Our Opinion

Our Opinion: How should communities regulate short-term rentals? More options to observe in the Berkshires

As companies like Airbnb and Vrbo continue their disruptive rise within the lodging sector, many Berkshire communities feel the growing pains of this nascent industry. As short-term rental units become more ubiquitous, the trend benefits homeowners who can make some extra cash on their property while complimenting the region’s critical tourism sector. Yet many residents voice real concerns about commercializing residential streets and squeezing already tight local housing markets, not to mention what many bed-and-breakfast owners see as an existential threat to their livelihoods.

We’ve watched closely as officials have weighed these interests within their communities and grappled with the tough task of crafting regulatory guardrails around a new and evolving practice affecting neighborhoods across the county. Now, as the new year unfolds, we’ll have one or two more municipal approaches to observe — and hopefully learn from as more cities and towns inevitably eye their own rules.

Great Barrington’s prickly path to putting a short-term rental bylaw on the books demonstrated just how bitter debate over such rules can get. Still, the controversial bylaw did win approval at last year’s town meeting and took effect on the first of the year.

Meanwhile, North Adams appears poised to adopt a short-term rental ordinance of its own. After months of talks, the City Council voted 7-2 last week to give preliminary approval to a batch of new rules for city homeowners making use of Airbnb or Vrbo. The proposal still requires a legal review from the city solicitor and, pending that OK, a final vote from councilors, which could come as soon as their next meeting on Tuesday.

Lenox voters OK plan to regulate short-term rentals
Richmond town meeting voters OK short-term rentals regulations

These aren’t the first Berkshire communities to take up the short-term regulatory issue. Like those other ones — Lenox, Richmond and Stockbridge — Great Barrington and North Adams took different tacks.

Great Barrington, like Lenox before it, established a cap on the number of days per year a property can be rented on a short-term basis. Uniquely, Great Barrington’s bylaw employs a compliance system that includes a software-based registration system as well as a 24/7 complaint hotline. Richmond’s rules, passed back in 2018, require a special permit, but only for short-term rental units operated when the owner isn’t present. The rules being weighed in North Adams would only require a special permit in certain zoning districts while allowing short-term rentals by right in others — but would mandate that all short-term rentals be registered with the city and subject to annual inspections.

These are all very different approaches to adapting to the new reality of short-term rentals. That’s to be expected, as the differing impacts felt by small cities, tourism havens and small rural towns should produce different regulatory adaptations.

In the past, we have argued for more zoning-based approaches, which would give municipalities tools to enact sensible controls with less potential for pushback, either grassroots or legal. Still, we can’t conclusively speak on which if any of these approaches is best.

Now, though, Berkshire communities have a freshly updated range of policy laboratories to closely observe. In turn, other municipalties eyeing their own regulations have more options for previewing how individual policies, from inspection and permitting to taxation and violation punishment, might work across varying levels of housing supply and short-term rental demand.

One North Adams city councilor who voted in favor of the short-term rental ordinance said that, even if the the new rules are ultimately approved, “This is not the end of us talking about this. ... We will have to make adjustments along the way.”

That’s going to be true for communities tweaking their already existing policies as the sector evolves as well as the communities plotting first plunges into regulating short-term rentals.

Getting this just right was always going to be difficult — and towns like Great Barrington have the hard feelings of a bruising townwide debate to show for it. Having more data points and regional lived experience to inform sensible policy is always a good thing, and it looks like we’ll have more of those very soon.

Like the county’s municipal officials, we’ll be watching closely.

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