Even If Short-Term Rental Bylaws Get Approved, Can They Be Enforced?

JohnCarl McGrady •

Hazlegrove 2024
Nantucket Harbor. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove | NantucketStock.com

The short-term rental (STR) bylaws on the warrant for November’s Special Town Meeting may be unenforceable, according to Health Director Roberto Santamaria.

“There are some sections of the bylaw that I would find downright unenforceable,” Santamaria said. “It’s going to be difficult. The question is how difficult. We already have a very busy staff. It’s a significant amount of work burden that’s going to be put on the Health Department.”

Santamaria was particularly concerned with the provision limiting the number of rental contracts each STR will be permitted, an element of the regulations that has sparked significant debate in recent months.

“We have no way to track that unless they admit it themselves,” he said.

“If we can’t enforce it, then there’s really no point in having it,” said Board of Health chair and Select Board member Malcolm MacNab, who has stridently opposed the bylaws.

The controversial bylaws, which were approved for the warrant last Wednesday by the Select Board after lengthy discussion and several revisions, already faced a difficult path to becoming law. They will need to overcome voter mobilization campaigns by opposition groups and garner the support of two-thirds of voters at Town Meeting. Santamaria’s comments suggest that even if the proposed bylaws do become law, STR operators may be able to sidestep them easily.

It’s not just the provisions of the new bylaws Santamaria fears may be unenforceable: the bylaw passed at the 2022 Annual Town Meeting - which requires local registration, permitting, inspection, and certain fees for STRs - could also pose problems. The bylaw has not yet been implemented, as the contractor hired by the Town failed to deliver the STR registration system needed to make it operational, but even so, Santamaria said at least two Health Department staffers have retired in the last year because of STRs.

“They [felt] that the amount of work that is coming in is extremely burdensome,” Santamaria said.

The Health Department is already overworked and struggles to enforce all of the regulations under its purview even without the STR bylaws in place.

“I am very concerned,” Santamaria said.

Board of Health Vice Chair Meredith Lepore suggested creating new positions specifically dedicated to enforcing STR regulations — an expensive proposal.

“It seems like the town is very interested in spending thousands upon thousands of dollars for moderators for a Work Group that didn’t come up with the greatest plan,” Lepore said. “I’m wondering if instead, we could spend thousands of dollars on a person to [enforce the regulations].”

Santamaria confirmed that the Health Department is already looking into adding one or two new positions, but there is no space for physical offices, meaning some staffers may have to work hybrid or remotely.

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