Select Board, STR Work Group Debate Revised STR Plan

JohnCarl McGrady •

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A slightly altered version of the Short-Term Rental Work Group’s proposed regulations was presented to the Select Board Wednesday in a discussion that highlighted the uncertainty still lingering around some key aspects of the Work Group’s plan.

The revised version of the proposed regulations would allow STR operators to short-term rent multiple dwellings on the same property as long as the dwellings are all rented to the same party under the same contract, instead of just limiting each operator to renting a single dwelling.

Like most of the Work Group’s proposals, this restriction would only apply to STRs either transferred or registered after the regulations are passed, meaning homeowners that currently operate multiple buildings as separate STRs could continue to do so. The revision, as well as the other revisions discussed at the meeting, is highly provisional and has not yet been vetted by Town Counsel or fully agreed upon by the Work Group.

While the revision mostly flew under the radar on Wednesday, the Work Group and the Select Board grappled with a question that has quickly emerged as one of the most contentious issues in the entire debate: how many occupancy changes should be allowed at an STR during July and August each year?

This question was hardly the only issue debated during the lengthy discussion, but of the new revisions to the Work Group’s proposal, it was their changes to the section dealing with the limit on occupancy changes that commanded the most time.

Ideally, a limit on occupancy changes would reduce turnover, or “churn”, in residential neighborhoods, but there is significant disagreement on what the limit should be.

Previously, the Work Group had proposed setting the limit at nine occupancy changes for all existing STRs, and then dropping it to four once the STR is sold—unless the unit in question has a residential tax exemption. This exception was designed to help year-round residents who use an STR to help pay the bills.

It has, however, proved controversial, as members of the Work Group have argued it is unfair treatment of seasonal residents.

The revision presented to the Select Board suggests splitting the residential exemption from the Work Group’s broader general bylaw package, forcing it to pass or fail on its own merits. It also suggests letting the limit increase back to nine occupancy changes each July and August after an STR is transferred once the STR’s new operator has owned the property for a certain number of years. This revision has drawn criticism of its own.

“I think the idea of limiting [occupancy changes per summer] to four was kind of brilliant,” Matt Fee, a Select Board member, said.

Jim Sulzer, one of the Work Group’s at-large members, also pointed out that according to the statistics presented to the Work Group, seasonal residents are far more likely to register their homes as short-term rentals than year-round residents, potentially justifying the unequal treatment.

“None of us have anything against seasonal residents,” he said. “But let’s look at the statistics.”

Some felt even the revised version of the proposal didn’t go far enough. Select Board Chair Dawn Hill Holdgate argued that STR operators, still incentivized to maximize their profits, would require renters to make their vacations longer to offset the reduced number of occupancy changes. As a result, Holdgate worried only the richest visitors would be able to make the trip to Nantucket.

“If we limit [occupancy changes per summer] to four…we are promoting more elitism on this island,” Holdgate said.

Holdgate was also concerned that, whatever the proposal’s merits, it might just be too controversial to garner the necessary support.

“It’s going to be really hard to pass anything if it takes away people’s property rights,” she said.

The Work Group’s proposals must pass at Town Meeting to become law. Before that however, they must gain the support of seven of the Work Group’s nine members, a hurdle that has not yet been cleared. With time running low for the Work Group to reach a consensus, the details of the proposal that elicit the most controversy, like the limit on occupancy changes, are coming under the microscope.

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