Lenox to study enforcing its rental bylaw

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LENOX — Should the town enforce an existing bylaw imposing regulations on homeowners who rent to transient tourists for less than 30 days through Airbnb and other online brokers?

That's an issue front and center for the Planning Board as it begins tackling potential revisions in the bylaw, especially for property owners who don't live in their houses but operate them as lodging businesses.

The board has set up a working group for an intensive study, with several imminent meetings already posted at Town Hall. Eventually, any proposed changes would be submitted to voters at a town meeting.

"The issue of short-term rentals has a lot of tentacles throughout our town," said newly elected Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber. She listed the impact on homeowners who rent properties, the lodging industry, housing, municipal finance and schools.

"Somebody's figured out this is probably a big business," Kueber said.

Citing conflicting interpretations of laws and regulations town by town and statewide, board member Tom Delasco suggested that "where there's confusion, there's money to be made."

A research study reported on Forbes.com and in the Wall Street Journal found that in 2015, nearly one in three U.S. travelers stayed in a privately owned short-term rental, up from one in 10 in 2011.

Growth in the private accommodation sector is actually outpacing growth in the travel industry as a whole, the study reported, and is expected to be worth nearly $37 billion by the end of 2018 — double the growth rate of the entire travel sector.

"The phenomenon is so new and its power has come upon us so quickly that simply looking to our existing seasonal rental of rooms bylaw does not take into account this huge shift in the lodging marketplace," said Kueber, comparing it to a tsunami.

"I think we need to talk about it," she added. "If we have the conversation, there's the potential to have at least a greater understanding and consensus among everyone in town as to what we decide to do and why we're doing it. By going through that, we build support for compliance, for enforcement and how we're actually going to do that."

The Lenox bylaw now on the books restricts seasonal short-term rental of rooms to no more than three guests, seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with weekend-only rentals permitted through Columbus Day. Those rentals are not allowed during the rest of the year.

It also requires a certificate of occupancy issued by the Building Department with annual inspections, and it specifies that a home being rented to short-term guests must be the legal residence of the owner "with lodging as an accessory use."

But there has been no enforcement.

Homeowners are permitted to rent for 30 days or more, such as the typical, two-month lodgings made available to Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company staffers, and those are not subject to any bylaw restrictions

"Let's just enforce the laws that we actually have," said Planning Board member Kameron Spaulding, who's also director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, "and not turn a blind eye to something we already have on the books."

"I've checked; there is no one that has a certificate of occupancy for the seasonal operating of rooms," he said. "If we as a town simply enforce what we already have, we are actually at the forefront of bylaws that work very well, according to people on both sides of the argument. We're not setting extreme standards."

"We have a great bylaw," he insisted, citing support from Airbnb as well as the lodging industry. "We do not enforce that bylaw at all."

Spaulding also mentioned that a homeowner with a swimming pool who rents rooms short-term needs an annual pool inspection and monthly water test by Tri-Town Health.

But Planning Board member Kate McNulty-Vaughan pointed out that "for the average person who's thinking about this at home, it's not right in front of them, and they're not likely to look it up. We've got to bridge that gap somehow."

"These are businesses," Spaulding said. "There are people making serious incomes; there are many people making more off of this than the median income in our town." He proposed sending reminders about the bylaw requirements with property tax bills in April.

Spaulding agreed that a potential easing of the bylaw could be explored, "but I have a hard time getting to loosening a bylaw that isn't even enforced. Let's enforce this for a year, see where we're at, and then maybe we loosen it. I think we could all agree that this could be made better."

Calling for steps to keep the community well-informed about the Planning Board's examination of the short-term rental industry, McNulty-Vaughan urged Kueber to keep the Select Board in the loop.

"There's a lot of interest in this conversation and this way, they'll have information as the discussion goes along," McNulty-Vaughan said.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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