Lenox innkeepers seek 'level playing field' to compete with others for short-term rentals

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LENOX — The message from a group of local innkeepers was loud and clear: We're losing business to short-term rentals on Airbnb and other sites, and we're looking for fairness and "a level playing field."

A group of inn owners made its case recently before the Planning Board's five-member working group considering a local zoning bylaw reboot to regulate house rentals of 30 days or less. The Planning Board is scheduled to resume the discussion on short-term rentals at 10 a.m. Monday in Town Hall.

Short-term rentals of spare rooms in owner-occupied homes are currently allowed between Memorial Day and Columbus Day. Traditional entire-house rentals of a month or more are permitted year-round and are not part of the board's review.

Data from 10 Lenox inns show that the average year-round occupancy rate is 25 percent, said Angela Lomanto, co-owner of the Brook Farm Inn, compared with the national average of 43 percent.

"We're all under-performing," Lomanto said. Summer-season occupancy averages 80 percent, she added.

Citing operating costs, the competition from short-term rentals "is eroding our ability to keep our inns going," she said.

Innkeeper Tim McCaffery of the 28-room Cornell Inn noted that he had just lost a $25,000 reservation for Columbus Day weekend this year "because they decided to rent a few houses."

"We have to go through many, many hoops in order to be in and stay in business," said Frank Newton, longtime owner of the Summer White House Inn, as he detailed multiple fee-based inspections and licenses required by operators. The surge of short-term, commercial-type home rentals can throw residents' "tranquility and peacefulness out the window; it's gone. It isn't fair to the person who bought the one-family house," he added.

According to Kemble Inn owner Scott Shortt, the 11.7 percent state and local room occupancy tax "makes us uncompetitive" compared with untaxed short-term rentals. He also listed higher commercial tax rates and property assessments, among other operating costs affecting inns.

He also proposed "outlawing short-term rentals if we have to wait for the state to act" on proposed taxation. "That's the only thing that is fair."

Shortt recited state law defining properties rented to four or more people unrelated to the owner as commercial lodging houses. The regulations specify that "if you give someone a place to sleep and you take their money, you're in a commercial activity and you're directly competing with sanctioned legal lodging properties." The law applies to a rental of one week or less by a traveler who is not a tenant, he added.

"If the double standard is allowed to persist," he said, "there's a reality that some of these lodging properties will de-register with the state [for tax collection] and become short-term rentals like everyone else." Shortt pointed to 10 local inns that, according to him, pay $1 million in local commercial property taxes and provide $600,000 in annual lodging tax revenue to the state and the town.

Summing up the dilemma, Shortt called it "sort of a `Wild West.'" He advocated enforcement of existing zoning bylaws limiting short-term rentals "until something changes."

Voicing a major concern over the safety of guests staying in uninspected short-term rentals, Jamie Trie, marketing director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, contended that "there's almost zero oversight; who's to say something's not going to happen."

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"Short-term rentals have been all over Lenox," Land Use Director/Town Planner Gwen Miller pointed out. "They're in every neighborhood, almost. It's not going anywhere; there's strong market demand for it. We've heard from a lot of people who want to do it as part of using their property."

A zoning bylaw change clarifying the definition of short-term rentals and specifying their frequency and intensity "makes a lot of sense," she said.

While many permanent residents legally rent out rooms or entire houses in the summer to help cover their housing costs, there are reports that some properties with midrange prices are being bought by investors and entrepreneurs to operate them as under-the-radar lodging facilities.

"I've heard that houses which would potentially be good for new families to move into town were being purchased to be converted into full-time short-term rentals," Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber said. "That continues to be a huge concern of mine."

With home prices driven up by wealthy retirees and second-home owners, she suggested, it has been challenging for families with more modest means to reside in Lenox.

But Deborah Rimmler, a board member, said she is "still not convinced, because I haven't seen any data that people are buying homes that otherwise would have gone to a family that would have put kids into the schools. I've only seen anecdotal data. I'd love it if we could find a way to sort that out."

She pointed to a shortage of jobs needed to afford a home purchase in town, "and I don't think anything we do on Airbnb or not is going to turn the needle on that in a way that's going to save our school system."

Instead, Rimmler stated, some full-time residents are able to afford staying in Lenox only by renting out their houses part time and gaining extra income.

Kueber cited a local housing study calling for efforts to make a wider range of housing available to a variety of purchasers with different incomes.

"Any short-term rental could have gone to someone who wanted to live in Lenox year-round," she stated.

And restating a comment made previously by Planning Board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan, she said, "I don't want to see Lenox become a place where everybody visits and nobody lives."

Any potential zoning change would be submitted to town meeting voters, in May or more likely in November, and a two-thirds supermajority would be needed for approval.

"We're probably not going to outlaw Airbnbs and save your industry," Rimmler told the innkeepers. "How do we think of a way for the Airbnbs and the inns to live peaceably together in a way that's fair?"

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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