Zoning rules approved for Lenox pot shops

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LENOX — The deal is sealed on a zoning proposal for marijuana businesses as town planners voted unanimously to offer voters a bylaw restricting retail shops to the commercial strip along Routes 7 and 20, where cannabis cultivation and processing establishments also would be allowed.

Non-retail marijuana operators also could seek approval for sites in the Lenox Dale industrial zone, where abandoned former paper mills sit empty, but there would be no retail pot stores anywhere in the village.

At an hourslong meeting and public hearing Wednesday night, the Planning Board also voted 3-2 not to submit a stopgap total prohibition on marijuana businesses to Lenox voters at the Nov. 1 special town meeting.

The ban, proposed by several opponents of pot, would have been put to a vote only if the bylaw allowing businesses in specific zones had failed to win the necessary two-thirds approval.

A fallback option remains available — if that bylaw fails, voters will be asked to cast ballots on a six-month moratorium extension through next June 30. Two-thirds approval also would be needed for that.

While the board wrapped up its debate on marijuana, it put off final action on a set of short-term home rental regulations until the next meeting on Sept. 25. The public hearing portion of Wednesday's meeting primarily was devoted to a spirited discussion on the Airbnb rental phenomenon, with a group of residents active in home rentals voicing strong objections to any form of local regulation.

As explained by Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller, the proposed zoning bylaw to regulate short-term rentals allows by-right year-round rental of up to two rooms for less than 30 consecutive days by an on-site primary-resident homeowner or an apartment leaseholder. There would be no limit on the total number of days the rooms could be rented out per year, but property owners would have to register with the town clerk and have their premises inspected by the Building Department and the Board of Health.

Two off-street parking spaces would have to be provided, and Miller said that there must be "no external evidence that the short-term rental activity was going on." Hosts could offer continental breakfasts, but guests could cook their own meals if they chose to.

Rentals of entire houses for less than 30 days at a time would be allowed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and then weekends until Columbus Day. Special permits would be needed from the town's zoning board — which could not be transferred to a new owner of the house, who would have to apply for a new permit — and proof has to be provided that the property is owned by a primary resident, not a second homeowner.

Registration and inspection also are required for whole-house short-term rentals, as well as off-street parking and no visual evidence of the activity. Compliance would become effective May 1.

Accessory-dwelling units such as a guest cottage on a site with a main house are considered "grandfathered" and could be rented out if owners' permits already are in place by Nov. 1 and comply with registration and inspection requirements.

If the bylaw is approved on Nov. 1, enforcement would not begin until next May 1. Property owners seeking to "grandfather" the rental use of their homes must prove to the zoning board that they have already been involved in rental activities prior to the special town meeting.

A separate general bylaw being submitted to voters, requiring only a simple majority vote, sets up the guidelines for health and safety inspections as well as registration requirements. All properties being offered for rental must be inspected and registered, effectively immediately if the bylaw is approved by voters.

During public comment, East Street resident Steve Seltzer contended that the prolonged debate during the past year over proposed regulations had been driven by innkeepers seeking a level playing field. Instead, he argued, the result is an effort to wipe out all short-term rentals "and eliminate any competition and a tourist-friendly environment for Lenox."

He cited "research by a group of taxpayers" that showed "we can't really find anybody who's in favor of this." Seltzer, stating that there had been "zero complaints" filed with local police or the fire department about short-term rentals, depicted a stagnant local housing market that requires two years for selling a home at a substantially reduced asking price.

Instead of a housing shortage, there's a lack of buyers, he told the board members, because of an economy that makes it "very challenging for people to eke out an existence in many cases." A "yes" vote on the bylaw proposals would lead to a property tax hike, Seltzer claimed, because tax revenue from short-term rentals would be eliminated, placing the burden on taxpayers.

"If you vote yes, you're restricting property rights," Seltzer told the audience of about 50 residents. "If someone wants to rent their home or part of their home, they're not going to be able to do that in Lenox, but they certainly can do it in surrounding towns." He also painted a grim picture of job losses and difficulty in selling homes.

"We already have enough problems with employment in the area," said Seltzer, "so when you vote yes, you're basically firing people, and it also will result in a loss in property values. The short-term rental bylaw really shouldn't be here at all. I seriously believe people don't really want this."

Resident Marc Manoli described the proposed regulations as "overbearing and burdensome, they impinge on our foundational American right of private property ownership. It will limit investment in the town, it will reduce tourism and drive away future residents, and that's the opposite of what we need. Short-term rentals are part of our free-market economy."

Planning Board Chairwoman Pam Kueber responded by stating that the drive for regulations was triggered by residents "who wanted to enjoy their neighborhoods in peace and quiet after the summer season is over." She also pointed out that the board aimed to limit home-rental commercial activity to primary full-time residents.

"The board has proposed something that's reasonable," said local attorney Jeff Lynch, who pushed back against arguments that property rights are being infringed by the short-term rental bylaws. "It sets a framework for people to comply with. This is a zoning ordinance that tells us how we can use our property. This is just an extension of regulations that happen all the time."

But resident Ted Silverman. stressing that whole-house rentals should be allowed year-round, contended that, based on his look at more than 80 different localities nationally, "what Lenox is proposing is the most restrictive in the entire country. I don't understand what would warrant Lenox to do that, this is a town driven by tourism, it has been forever. People who can't deal with tourism and need their seven months of quiet need to think about living somewhere else."

He urged the planners to slow down and await eventual state passage of legislation to regulate short-term, online rentals.

"It's ill-advised, rather than waiting for the state to weigh in and provide us with some guidelines and opportunities, we're spending a lot of time putting things together that may have to go back to the drawing board."

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


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