Our Opinion: Lenox, state confront short-term rental issue

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The exploding short-term rental industry, enabled by such online sites as Airbnb, VRBO and others, has matured to the point where localities have begun calling for some kind of government regulation. In Boston, for example, the character of neighborhoods has been affected as investors buy up whole buildings and convert them for the express purpose of renting out rooms short-term, according to Commonwealth Magazine.

In Berkshire County, the epicenter of the short-term rental boom is Lenox, a picturesque town packed with cultural attractions — in other words, the perfect venue for the short-term rental industry to take root and thrive. Town leaders, being cognizant of the transformation of properties occurring in their midst, have proceeded cautiously and deliberately to address the issue in an attempt to reconcile fears of a loss of community character with an acknowledgement that property owners have a right to do as they wish with their homes. It's a careful balancing act, exacerbated by a lack of direction to date from Beacon Hill, which has been playing catch-up with the phenomenon.

At issue is the very amorphous nature of the short-term rental industry, and the fact that one-size-fits-all regulations, while well intentioned, could easily end up hurting certain property owners in an attempt to ensure public safety. "They (short-term rentals) come in many shapes and sizes," Lenox' land use director and town planner Gwen Miller told The Eagle (January 16).

A single woman who rents a room in the back of her house to make ends meet, for example, differs in both quality and degree from a family that vacates its entire house to make room for renters, and to an even greater extent from investors who buy up rental housing stock that they themselves never intend to occupy. Traditional hoteliers, innkeepers and those owning registered bed-and-breakfast operations argue that they must observe health, fire, and other regulations and collect taxes from which short-term renters are currently spared.

State Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lenox, who is on the house committee currently tasked with developing the much-needed regulations, told The Eagle that currently, the sentiment in the Statehouse is for crafting a minimum set of state rules covering the industry while allowing enormous latitude to localities to make such rules as stringent as they wish in order to tailor them to specific needs. As for taxation, he indicated that after meeting with his constituents, he found no push-back concerning collection of a state-imposed sales tax, as in the current room tax, on any and all rentals. He also told The Eagle that his committee is considering a mandatory requirement that an as-yet unspecified percentage of the taxes returned to localities be spent on housing and infrastructure, while giving towns the option of spending as much as they want on these items above the requirement if they so choose.

Ms. Miller, who holds the view that short-term rentals — if properly regulated — can be a valuable addition to Lenox' visitor appeal, would like to see all revenues spent on workforce housing — already in short supply and becoming more so as housing stock gets snapped up by investors. Others would like to see at least some of the windfall spent on marketing the town.

Ms. Miller's department will hold a final meeting on the topic this Saturday in an effort to ensure that all stakeholders have had the opportunity for input before local regulations are voted on at the town meeting in May. It is a complex problem that descended on communities quickly and with little warning. Ideally, Lenox can strike upon a solution that other state towns and cities can use as a model.

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