Lenox voters OK plan to regulate short-term rentals

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LENOX — In a big win to ease the housing crunch in town, voters OK'd a plan Thursday night that limits short-term rentals to 75 days a year, with an option for homeowners to apply for 35 more.

The bylaw, two years in the making, aims to clamp down on the home-rental phenomenon begun by online giant Airbnb. The result: a bylaw that preserves Lenox's available housing stock for year-round renters and prevents investors from snapping up moderate-priced homes. The bylaw also will aid homeowners seeking to maximize rental income to maintain their residences and pay property taxes. 

After more than an hour of vigorous debate at the special town meeting, the bylaw passed with ample supermajority support, 151-61, winning 71 percent of the ballots cast. A two-thirds vote was required for approval.

Turnout for the meeting at the Duffin Theater in Lenox Memorial Middle and High School was 219, representing 6 percent of the town's 3,663 registered voters.

The bylaw applies to rentals of 31 consecutive days or fewer, which can total no more 75 days in a year, unless the owner applies for and receives a special permit. Longer-term rentals of 32 days or more are unaffected.

Traditional rentals of up to two bedrooms with the homeowner present are now allowed by right year-round, not just in the summer and fall high season.

One proposed amendment by local property owner Rinaldo Del Gallo III, who claimed the bylaw might be illegal and unconstitutional, was ruled out of order by Moderator Janet Pumphrey; she pointed out that bylaws are subject to approval by state Attorney General Maura Healey.

Several other amendments failed, including one that sought to remove all limits; another to allow a total of 110 days a year by right, with no special permit required; and another that would have allowed an unlimited number of additional days by special permit from the Zoning Board.

Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber said the proposed bylaw resulted from "extensive dialogue among citizens with varying viewpoints. What everyone had in common was the desire to resolve this issue in a fair, amicable, considerate way.

"The board held eight public meetings from June to October, resulting in overall satisfaction with the compromise bylaw, Kueber said.

"We all listened to each other, worked hard to find common ground and hope that with your vote, you'll agree," she said.

Planning Board member and local architect Jim Harwood said, "We seek to harness the positive aspects of short-term rentals while minimizing any negative impacts. In the past year or two, we've heard clearly that Lenox residents need this flexibility with their property to earn extra money, and many of them do so."

In addition, Harwood noted, "we also heard clearly from neighbors concerned about maintaining a residential quality of life."

For all short-term rentals, parking must be on-site. Events involving tents, amplified music or normally requiring an entertainment license from the town are not allowed.

"What we heard from citizens was that short-term rentals for lodging use would be fine, but these should not be turned into event venues," Kueber said.

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Quoting Town Manager Christopher Ketchen, she noted "short-term rentals are required to blend inconspicuously into neighborhoods."

During voter discussion, attorney Jeffrey Lynch urged rejection of the bylaw, contending it's not a compromise.

"This should be a `no' vote, because we are now creating inns without notice or any real substantive regulation, and we're changing the fabric of our neighborhoods that cannot be taken back," he said. Lynch, a local resident, also represents a group of innkeepers.

"If you want to become an inn and rent unlimited, you can get a special permit and run an inn or a B&B in every single zone in Lenox," he said.

Resident Sue Merritt inquired about any state recommendations for regulating short-term rentals.

"There are none, and we don't anticipate there will be any," said Town Counsel Joel Bard of KP Law in Boston. The state has approved taxation of rentals and a registration system, he added, pointing out that state law defers to local municipalities for bylaws covering regulation.

Voters also approved a bylaw requiring short-term rental hosts to register their properties with the town clerk. But a provision requiring annual inspections was removed from the proposal after the state issued what town officials described as confusing guidelines for enforcement.

The registration program allows public safety personnel to be familiar with the location of short-term rentals, provide a local contact to respond to noise complaints or other concerns, and to provide information on record at Town Hall for all advertised rental properties, Select Board Chairman Edward Lane said.

"We're not giving up on the idea that we should do inspections, we're just not ready for it today," Lane said.

Several residents, including Ronald Maitland, Molly Elliot and Eiran Gazit, voiced concerns about the lack of inspection requirements in the bylaw.Lane noted that the building inspector can check properties if there are complaints.

It took only a half-hour for voters to overwhelmingly support by voice vote a Historical Commission plan to delay demolition of historically significant buildings for up to one year in an effort to retain the traditional old New England appearance of local neighborhoods. The bylaw, effective March 1, does not affect alterations and renovations to the buildings, but stresses preservation of street-facing facades.

Electronic balloting

The town's first-in-the-county test of electronic balloting was a resounding success, with voters endorsing the use of hand-held keypad devices by a 171-7 vote, meaning the town will either lease or purchase the equipment for future local meetings.

The Planning Board's compromise proposal to regulate the growing popularity of short-stay rentals of entire dwellings emerged over the past five months after an unsuccessful previous version was sent back to the board by voters a year ago. Amid opposition, the board had pulled its first version off the agenda ahead of last year's annual town meeting in May.

Meanwhile, as of 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. It's the same tax collected by commercial lodging owners, and the town's slice of the tax revenue, 6 percent, is the same as it gets from hotels and inns.

Berkshire County is sixth among the leading home-sharing regions in the state, with 61,000 guests earning $9.8 million for hosts using Airbnb in 2018.


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