Short-term rentals 'a very emotional issue' at Lenox forum on potential regulations

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LENOX — Short-term vacation home rentals on Airbnb, VRBO and similar sites are a boon to homeowners seeking to help pay their bills and maintain their property rights.

Or, they threaten neighborhood character, especially when investors buy up properties for use as commercial short-term rentals.

That's the takeaway from about two-dozen residents who voiced strong, occasionally heated views during a public forum hosted at Town Hall on Saturday by the Lenox Planning Board and Land Use Director/Town Planner Gwen Miller.

"There are legitimate issues, and then there's a lot of noise and bogeymen," said resident Richard Taylor, who rents a guest house to visitors. "Part of what troubles me about this approach is that it's like an investigation; there's something adversarial about this, instead of asking people to provide accurate information about what they're doing. Most people who rent are not trying to hide anything."

For Denise Roszkowski, a town resident, neighborhood character in single-family areas is the key concern. "I have an objection to people who rent every nook and cranny of their home," she said.

"I'm all for sensible and limited regulation of a new pattern of home usage," said resident Colin Mathews. "While I'm grateful for and respectful of the hospitality industry, I don't want that industry to propose regulations or suggest zoning that unnecessarily limits homeowners' ability to use their home in a way they choose to while being respectful of the community."

But Brook Farm Inn co-owner Angela LoMonto asserted that "all short-term rental properties should be inspected and up to code the same way that lodging properties have to be." She also contended that commercial short-term rental houses decrease property values in a neighborhood and that local taxes should be collected on Airbnb hosts to help lower the property tax burden for town residents who have trouble keeping their homes.

Residents Amy Lafave and Olga Weiss both expressed concerns that some of the town's limited number of moderately priced houses are being snapped up by investors for commercial short-term rental use.

"Some regulation and some taxation are OK," said Weiss, an Airbnb host, but should be "proportional" based on the type of rental units being offered.

"It's obviously a very emotional issue," said Jamie Trie of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce. She advocated attention to safety for homeowners and renters as a policy issue.

Resident David Sefcik complained about a three-bedroom house that he said sleeps 10 in his neighborhood. "It's being turned into a Motel 6, and that's not why we moved into that neighborhood 34 years ago," he said. "A residential zone is not a B&B zone, not a commercial zone; why should it suddenly become one?"

The Planning Board's short-term rental subcommittee has been gathering information from the local community before considering whether to propose regulations on short-term rentals of less than 30 days for a decision by voters at a November town meeting. Any change in the zoning bylaws requires two-thirds approval.

"One policy option is to do nothing, leave the situation the way it is," Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber pointed out several times during the two-hour forum at Town Hall. She's also co-chairwoman of the subcommittee.

"At the end of the day, we want to craft a policy that's fair and reasonable," Miller said, "one that recognizes that many families in Lenox have always rented a home, a room or an apartment over the summer to people working at Tanglewood and other seasonably very active cultural venues."

Longer-term rentals of entire homes of a month or more, and seasonal June-October rentals of spare bedrooms in houses occupied by their owners, are already permitted by the town and are not being reviewed by the Planning Board.

The board is focusing on weekend and short-stay rentals by homeowners who leave the property, as well as by owners or investors who rent out a house short-term that's not their full-time residence. Other scenarios being explored involve a full-time resident's second home in town that's being rented for brief periods as well as "accessory-dwelling units" such as a "mother-in-law apartment" or a guest house.

According to data from the Host Compliance monitoring company presented by Kueber, currently there are an estimated 149 separate hosted units, including 100 entire houses, that fit the definition of a short-term rental. In addition, about 45 units are being listed on Airbnb and other sites by inns and B&Bs.

But resident Ted Silverman questioned the figures, expressing doubt that the numbers are that high. "There's a ton of problems trying to do this accurately," he asserted, referring to Host Compliance. "It makes it seem like it's extremely prevalent."

Local architect Jim Harwood questioned whether "it's safe to say this data is very suspect."

A study released by Airbnb last year reported 60 host properties on average between June and September in Lenox.

The town has 3,100 housing units and 2,400 households. Miller noted. Lenox has nearly 1,000 guest rooms available at hotels, inns and B&Bs out of about 4,200 countywide, according to 1Berkshire, the economic development agency.

State legislation to collect taxes from short-term rentals as well as possible licensing and registration requirements is expected to emerge within the next two months, according to state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. But local communities would be able to make their own decisions about additional taxes and potential property inspections.

"People have been renting rooms and houses in this town forever," said Pignatelli, who attended the forum. He pointed out that people who attended a hearing by state lawmakers in Lenox last June did not object to taxes, but "they just don't want to be over-regulated."

He predicted that the state House will propose "a baseline of regulations and a baseline on the number of days that it will be triggered," along with a requirement to be registered with the state Department of Revenue, and taxes on properties rented for 30 days or less.

He acknowledged that some properties in Lenox are being purchased by investors for the sole purpose of year-round, short-stay rentals — a trend that's growing.

"The bottom line with our legislation is that towns should be allowed to do what they want to do beyond this baseline approach," Pignatelli said.

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

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