Clarence Fanto: Still trying for long-term regulations about short-term rentals

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LENOX — It will take more than a pocketful of miracles to resolve the so-called Airbnb issue, which has been simultaneously challenging lawmakers at the Statehouse, in Boston, Salem and other cities, and here in Berkshire County.

Unlike Cape Cod, where one-week home rentals are accepted as an essential part of the hospitality industry, Boston's City Council has sharply reined in short-term rental business by passing one of the nation's most stringent set of regulations. It took three years to come up with rules aimed at freeing up about 2,000 apartments rented by the night to visitors instead of to students and others needing a one-year lease.

The state House and Senate have passed bills with seemingly irreconcilable differences. The Senate's version applies the state's 5.7 percent hotel tax to short-term rentals. The House plan calls for a three-tiered tax rate — the more units a person is renting out, the higher the tax bite. The Senate would leave licensing and inspections up to local government, while the House would require short-term rental hosts to register with the state.

State Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Worcester, who is on the joint conference committee trying to resolve the differences, claimed that agreement was near. But the lead House negotiator, state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, a Boston Democrat, punctured his counterpart's optimism: "It's inaccurate. It's not done, and it's not done until it's done. And right now, we're not done. And it's inaccurate to say otherwise," he told State House News Service. OK, we get the point.

With state lawmakers set to adjourn their formal session for the year July 31 and no state budget bill approved, the chances of a completed short-term rental bill are remote, at best. By the way, Massachusetts is the only state where lawmakers have not yet passed a budget for the year ahead.

Airbnb, VRBO and similar online services favor the Senate bill, arguing that the House version is "onerous and overly burdensome."

In Lenox, the Planning Board is still struggling to forge a proposal to put before town voters at a special town meeting slated for Nov. 1.

Town Counsel Joel Bard told the board last month that investor-owned houses used full time and solely for short-term rentals are a commercial use and would not be eligible for "grandfathering" if town voters approve restrictions.

It bears repeating that there is no effort to restrict the local tradition of resident homeowner rentals of one or two bedrooms to short-stay visitors during the season — Memorial Day to Labor Day, and then weekends through Columbus Day. This will continue to be allowed by right in all town zones. And long-term rentals, 30 days or more, are unaffected, covered by landlord-tenant lease agreements.

At last Tuesday's Planning Board meeting, several members argued for a more flexible approach to short-term rentals, allowing residents to host guests at any time of year, up to an annual limit of days still to be decided.

"It's better to have it more flexible, if we're trying to encourage people to come here off-season," Deborah Rimmler said. "People are doing it inside and outside of the season anyway," added Tom Delasco, also a Planning Board member.

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Board members appear opposed to allowing second-home owners whose legal residence is elsewhere to take part in the local Airbnb short-term rental market. "A primary residency requirement is crucial to this whole thing," Delasco said.

With two-thirds voter approval needed for any zoning change, Rimmler cautioned that "there's a chance this overly complicated bylaw could fail at the town meeting, and then we're left with nothing."

Staking out a strong position for the sanctity of neighborhoods, Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber described the Airbnb short-term rental industry as "commercial intrusion into residential zones. People buy houses expecting they're going to have neighbors year-round, more or less.

"They don't expect a hotel next door, so this enabling people to earn money and live here in Lenox is balanced with a goal of enabling people to live in Lenox without commercial intrusions around them constantly," she said. "That's what they bought into to begin with — the starting point is, `I bought my home in a residential neighborhood, not in a hotel zone.'"

"We have to be careful," board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan agreed. "There is a tipping point somewhere."

With consensus still elusive, only two Planning Board meetings remain before a final bylaw proposal is due to be completed Aug. 14, ahead of a Sept. 12 formal public hearing.

"Tonight's meeting probably didn't help anybody," Kueber conceded last Tuesday, though McNulty-Vaughan said that it might have helped the board.

Some frustration surfaced over the apparent snail's pace of progress.

"As the Planning Board, it's your job to give us a bylaw, not give us option A, option B. We need a succinct bylaw with everything in it, not leave it up to the voters to say, `I like this, but I don't like that,' " said Mary-Jo Piretti, a longtime Realtor. "To leave it open like that, I think it's suicide. It's not the townspeople's job to come up with a bylaw. It's your job."

No doubt, it's a thorny issue. But as usual, making the perfect the enemy of the good is the road to nowhere.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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