Our Opinion: Address Airbnbs at a grass-roots level

The internet-enabled short-term rental market was a phenomenon no one could have predicted a few short years ago, but it has rapidly become a fact of life in the tourist-friendly Berkshires. As is often the case with revolutionary changes such as this one, local communities are having to play regulatory catch-up as the law of unintended consequences begins to leave its imprint on neighborhoods, the lodging industry and the way local residents look upon those among them wishing to exercise their right to make an extra buck from their properties.

Sites like Airbnb and VRBO have made it possible for many Berkshirites to market extra rooms or whole houses with ease; for some owners, renting out a room for a day or two to tourists is the difference between being able to afford to stay in their homes or having to move out. For others, it's an opportunity to earn a return on a property investment. Cashing in on Berkshire County's cultural and scenic attractions has become so widespread, however, that towns are beginning to feel growing pains.

Lenox, for example, has already held three public forums to discuss drawing up regulations that would impose order upon the Wild West boom atmosphere that currently characterizes the short-term industry within its borders. Stockbridge plans to look into the issue at future select board meetings, and now Richmond town officials, in response to some local complaints about the side-effects of short-term rentals, is considering drawing up its own regulations on rentals of 30 days or fewer in advance of its annual Town Meeting in May.

When towns originally passed their zoning laws, houses that accommodated one or two families were the norm. With the rise of short-term renting, however, neighborhoods have found their stability placed at risk to various degrees by an influx of transient visitors, which causes some of these units to resemble time-shares more closely than traditional homes. As Richmond Town Administrator Mark Pruhenski told The Eagle, one non-resident-owned house in the town has been configured to sleep as many as 16 people, which not only has already caused problems and complaints from neighbors (Eagle, February 12), but will be the site of several big wedding parties that he is currently powerless to stop.

In addition, towns have been fielding complaints from local hoteliers and innkeepers who must observe safety and tax laws from which short-term rentals are currently exempt. While no one wishes to come between local residents and their right to earn extra income, it's time that Berkshire municipalities accept that this financial manna from heaven does not come without consequences — particularly in light of the fact that the short-term rental boom is showing no signs of abating.

For that reason, they should move with all deliberate speed to create legal frameworks within which the industry can thrive while minimizing collateral damage to the charm and integrity of the communities that constitute its greatest marketing appeal. This new wrinkle in local civic life is far-reaching enough that, rather than simply modify existing zoning ordinances, it would behoove towns to take a zero-based, ground-up approach that views short-term rentals as a discrete development worthy of its own body of regulations. Years from now, they may thank themselves for their efforts.


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