New Short-Term Rental Compromise Heads To Voters In September, Again Under Protest

JohnCarl McGrady •

The Select Board voted unanimously last week to approve the warrant for a September Special Town Meeting. It includes a consensus short-term rental (STR) article drafted by the sponsors of a trio of citizen warrant articles.

“I support putting this article on the warrant,” Select Board Vice Chair Tom Dixon, who chaired the subcommittee tasked with drafting the bylaw. “We did get a lot of consensus.”

The consensus article, which received the support of two of the three groups as well as the Select Board, was created by an STR subcommittee that included representatives from the Planning Board and Finance Committee. Two representatives from each of the three citizen warrant articles related to STRs sat on the committee.

The compromise bylaw would limit STR operators to renting buildings on a single lot and ban STRs in tertiary dwellings, affordable housing, workforce housing, and covenant housing. Short-term rental operators currently renting dwelling units on multiple lots would have eight years to comply with the new law. It would also limit STR operators to eight changes of occupancy during July and August. New STR operators would be limited to three changes of occupancy in July and August for five years, at which point they would be allowed eight. If passed, the bylaw would go into effect on July 1st, 2025.

“We do support this compromise article. We think it's fair. It protects the traditional use on the island, even those traditional uses that are not an accessory use, and that's really why we had to take the structure we did,” Grant Sanders, one of the STR article sponsors, said. “It is a true compromise.”

Attorney Steve Cohen, who sponsored another of the STR articles, also voiced his support, despite disagreeing with some of the bylaw’s provisions. “Really what's important is that we have rules that are simple, effective, and enforceable and address our goals,” he said. “I think the tools here are the right tools.”

The final STR citizen article sponsor, Charity Benz, spoke against the compromise bylaw Wednesday. Benz had already indicated at the last meeting of the subcommittee that she would not support the compromise and would instead move forward with the article backed by her political action group Put Nantucket Neighborhoods First.

“We reject it,” she said. “The article before you guts 50 years of zoning.”

Matthew Peel, who was the other representative for Benz’s article on the subcommittee, tried to convince the Select Board to hold all four STR articles until the annual Town Meeting next May to allow the groups more time to reach a compromise. But the other groups disagreed.

“We have to do it in September. We just have to. We can't go through another Town Meeting with this hanging over our heads,” Sanders said. “I'm going to kill myself trying to get this passed.”

Benz raised several concerns with the compromise article and the drafting process during the Select Board meeting. Foremost among her criticisms is her longstanding opposition to any article that would allow STRs by right across the island. Benz believes that STRs should only be allowed as an accessory use. But sponsors of the other articles and Select Board members argue that the compromise article essentially only allows accessory use — it’s just worded differently.

"The term accessory has a very distinct legal definition,” Dixon said. “[But] my opinion, and I think the group agreed with it, was this was essentially accessory zoning but defined in a legally doable way.”

Benz also supports a residency requirement for operating an STR.

“That has always been the Nantucket tradition. That provision was never discussed by the committee,” Benz said.

The provision was, in fact, discussed by the committee.

“We removed the residency requirement from the compromise article largely because we learned it likely violated the dormant commerce clause,” Sanders said.

Benz also objected to several definitions in the compromise bylaw and advocated for allowing fewer changes in occupancy during July and August, as well as limiting changes in occupancy in the so-called shoulder seasons.

Supporters remain concerned that the compromise article may be unable to win two-thirds of the vote at Town Meeting, the high threshold required for zoning articles. The Short Term Rental Work Group’s proposals at the last Special Town Meeting were also framed as a compromise and endorsed by the Select Board—and yet they were unable to gain even majority support.

“I support putting this article forward,” Select Board member Matt Fee said. “I do think that getting to two-thirds will be difficult. I know a lot of people have made a lot of concessions and changes but I still think if people cannot be civil…I don't think it passes.”

Sanders and Cohen also voiced concerns about civility.

“We need to remove the rancor and the division from this debate and make it about what’s good for the island,” Sanders said. “I know there has been a lot of toxicity and negativity around this and it just needs to come to an end.”

Before reaching Town Meeting, the compromise article must go before the Planning Board and Finance Committee. Both bodies may recommend changes.

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