At Critical Moment In Short-Term Rental Debate, Is ACK Now Tapping Out?

Jason Graziadei •

Short term rentals
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It's a critical moment in Nantucket's ongoing debate over short-term rentals, with a landmark court decision handed down and a looming vote on a zoning amendment at next month's Annual Town Meeting. So why does it appear that one of the main players in the short-term rental saga is tapping out?

In an "urgent appeal" sent last week to supporters, ACK Now founder Peter McCausland disclosed that the political action group would not be hiring a replacement for former executive director Julia Lindner. And McCausland stated that he and his wife Bonnie had contributed $2 million to ACK Now but "have decided that we have given as much as we should."

Since 2021, ACK Now has been the driving force behind efforts to restrict and regulate short-term vacation rentals on Nantucket. While its efforts at Town Meeting have been rejected by voters, ACK Now funded the legal challenge brought by island resident Cathy Ward against the town and her neighbors that was recently decided by Land Court Judge Michael Vhay. The lawsuit was ultimately successful, as Judge Vhay ruled that the town's zoning bylaw does not allow short-term rentals as a principal use of a primary dwelling.

Even as the citizen petition submitted by Steven Cohen - Article 59 - seeks to render Vhay's ruling moot by amending the town's zoning code to allow short-term rentals, McCausland and ACK Now appear to be relinquishing the leading role in the debate.

"We have decided that we can best continue the fight by providing legal, public relations, and data support to the newly-formed community group, Put Nantucket Neighborhoods First (PNNF), and others opposing the commercialization of Nantucket’s residential neighborhoods," McCausland wrote in his appeal asking supporters to donate funds. "It is imperative that Steven Cohen’s Article 59 be defeated as it would allow full-time STRs islandwide by right with no restrictions."

In an interview with the Current on Thursday, McCausland stated "It's time for other people to step up. I'm still in the game but in a very different capacity."

The newly formed Put Nantucket Neighborhoods First mentioned by McCausland has entered the fray over the past two weeks, sending a letter to island residents opposing Article 59 and suggesting that it will submit a new citizen petition to "codify the rights of local and seasonal residents to short-term rent their homes as an accessory use while also preserving the judge's ruling that an STR cannot be the principal or only use of a property." The letter was signed by Charity Benz, Abigail Camp, Emily Kilvert, Meredith Lepore, and Matthew Peel.

Benz stated the group of concerned citizens came together after feeling "horrified and appalled by what the impact of passing Article 59 would be." While Benz stated that McCausland and ACK Now have shared data, strategy, and experiences with PNNF, there is no funding coming from ACK Now.

"They’re sort of backing away," Benz said of ACK Now. "There’s a lot of data sharing going on. He (McCausland) is not just some wealthy guy, he really cares about it. It’s just sharing experiences, things that have worked and haven't worked…There’s no funding coming from ACK Now, I can assure you of that."

Both Benz and McCausland stated they believed Cohen was "fear-mongering" to get voters to approve this proposed zoning amendment in Article 59. 

Mentioned by name repeatedly in McCausland's letter, Cohen said this week that ACK Now and PNNF were downplaying the significance and reach of Vhay's ruling, which he believes prohibits the vast majority of short-term rentals on Nantucket. He also expressed doubt about the purported relationship between ACK Now and PNNF as described by the groups' leaders. 

“When you get a billionaire trying to raise half a million dollars for you, I question how local and grassroots you are," Cohen said. "ACK Now is still the money behind it, they’re still providing resources, but they’re trying to put a different face on it. It’s not grassroots, it’s AstroTurf.”

Cohen's Article 59 would amend Nantucket's zoning bylaw to codify and allow short-term rentals in all zoning districts (with the exception of commercial-industrial, or CI). If approved, the zoning change would render the Land Court ruling moot, however, it will require a two-thirds majority for passage. Similar zoning amendments have either been rejected or tabled at Town Meetings over the past three years, but this time, the stakes have clearly changed.

"The judge’s ruling says that short-term rentals are not expressly allowed under Nantucket's zoning code as a primary use of the property, and they may be allowed as an accessory use," Cohen said. "So nearly every short-term rental lease is illegal under that because we don’t really know what accessory use means because it’s not defined. If you look at what ACK Now is pushing, it’s only houses owned as primary residences by Nantucketers or secondary dwellings, so there's a major disconnect. Most vacationers don’t want to stay in someone’s cottage or someone’s primary residence, nor are there enough of them. So this idea we’re harkening back to Nantucket of old is just a lie. Most short-term rentals are not someone’s cottage or someone's primary residence. Most are houses owned by summer people who rent some of the time and use them some of the time. That's what they’re talking about and trying to kill...They’re burning down the house because there’s a broken window."

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