Lenox seeks public input on 'compromise' short-term rental rules plan

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LENOX — A compromise Planning Board proposal to regulate short-term home rentals will get a detailed public presentation Thursday in advance of the Nov. 7 special town meeting, where registered voters will have the final say.

The proposed bylaw, which needs a two-thirds supermajority for approval, was chiseled and refined during eight biweekly Planning Board discussions with residents from June through September.

"Many residents have been extremely generous with their time in helping to craft this proposed bylaw, and working together we've come up with a compromise that we believe makes a lot of sense for our town," Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber stated. "The Thursday night public hearing provides the opportunity for residents with a keen interest in this issue to understand the details — including how and why we reached this consensus — in advance of the November special town meeting."

The public hearing is set for 6 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium. After a presentation about the bylaw and its significance, comments will be heard by the Planning Board members.

For more than two years, the town has struggled with the issue as supporters of limited regulations saw short-term rentals as a fair use of private property, while opponents pointed out that the rentals put lodging owners a a disadvantage, since they have to comply with a wide array of zoning and building code requirements.

Skeptics of limited regulation pointed to an unknown number of investors buying moderate-priced homes solely for commercial rental income purposes, resulting in alterations of neighborhood character and impacts on home values.

At last November's special town meeting, voters sent a previous proposal back to the Planning Board for another try. The board had pulled a previous version off the agenda for the May 2018 annual town meeting.

The revised regulations would allow short-term rentals of entire dwelling units for a grand total of up to 75 days per calendar year, by right, in all residential,commercial and industrial zoning districts.

Those who wish to rent their dwellings for an additional 35 days, up to 110 days per calendar year, would need to secure a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. That provision also applies to all zoning districts throughout the town.

Short-term rentals of up to two bedrooms in a dwelling unit would be allowed, by right, without limits, as long as the owner or renter of the unit is present. The current bylaw limits such rentals to the summer and, on weekends only, between Labor Day and Columbus Day.

On a property that includes more than one dwelling unit, the limits on rental days would be split among the units, and only one of the entire unit or rooms may be used for rental at a time.

The proposal defines short-term rentals as lodging up to 31 consecutive calendar days per visit in at least one room of an owner-occupied, tenant-occupied or nonowner occupied dwelling unit such as a house, apartment, accessory dwelling unit on the same property, cottage, condominium or a furnished accommodation.

The bylaw would apply to owners of primary, full-time legal residences as well as second homes. It excludes hotels, models, inns, resorts, lodging houses or bed-and-breakfast establishments.

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According to the proposal, the regulations seek to balance private, neighborhood and public concerns by setting mid-range limits on the intensity of short-term rental activity on Airbnb, VRBO and other sites in order to:

- Protect and maintain the residential character of existing neighborhoods.

- Preserve housing options for new residents by deterring commercial interests from buying housing to use primarily as short-term rental businesses.

- Enable residents to earn extra money from their properties to better afford to live locally, maintain their properties, and contribute to the community.

For all short-term rentals, the town would require registration by the owner of all properties used for short-term rental purposes.

The state, also defining short-term rentals as 31 days or fewer, requires registration of properties. Starting July 1, the state Department of Revenue began collecting an 11.75 percent tax on short-stay rentals, billed and paid by hosts through Airbnb and similar sites, the same tax collected by commercial lodging owners. The town's slice of the tax revenue, 6 percent, is the same as it gains from hotels and inns.

Other requirements of the proposed Lenox bylaw include:

- All overnight parking must be within the property's driveway or garage.

- Events that include tents or amplified music or which would customarily require a license or permit in a commercial setting are not allowed.

- Signs relating to short-term rentals are not allowed.

- Any property with outstanding violations of the building code, fire code, Board of Health, or town general bylaws could not be used for short-term rentals.

"We need to protect the residential quality of this town," Select Board member Marybeth Mitts commented at a previous board meeting. "It's what makes this town so special; it's what makes the character of visiting this town so special. We are not trying to develop our residential neighborhoods into a commercial enterprise. We want to keep the character of Lenox the way it is."

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


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