Short-Term Rental Bylaw Proposals Defeated At Special Town Meeting

Jason Graziadei •

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Voters speak out during the 2023 Annual Town Meeting. Photos by Kit Noble

For the fourth straight town meeting, Nantucket voters found no consensus on how or whether to restrict short-term rentals.

This time was supposed to be different. The pair of bylaw proposals that were defeated Tuesday night had been carefully crafted by the town’s Short-Term Rental Work Group, an entity that Town Meeting voters had created in 2022 and tasked with threading the needle to find a middle ground on the divisive issue.

Over the span of nearly a year, the work group slogged through the details, the data, and the various concerns of interest groups. Its members finally settled on what they believed were fair bylaws that could protect the rights of year-round and seasonal homeowners to rent their homes, create reasonable restrictions during the summer months, limit corporate ownership of short-term rentals, and clarify their legal standing in the island zoning code to bring an end to the “neighbor versus neighbor” lawsuits pending in court.

Yet over the past two months, it became clear it would not be an easy road to passage. The Select Board attempted to make significant changes to the proposed bylaws. The Finance Committee sought to reverse them. ACK Now, the political action group funded by seasonal resident Peter McCausland that has been pushing for restrictions on short-term rentals for the past three years, came out strongly against both proposals, calling them a “handout to commercial short-term rental interests.” The Nantucket Land & Water Council also urged the community to reject the bylaw proposals. And the town’s Health Department director Roberto Santamaria called parts of the bylaw “unenforceable.”

Island real estate interests and Nantucket Together, the political action group made up of seasonal residents who operate short-term rentals, issued their support for the warrant articles, as did individual members of the Short-Term Rental Work Group, including Jim Sulzer.

And so the battle lines had been drawn before Tuesday’s Special Town Meeting, and ultimately it was not to be. A solution to the complex issue that could satisfy both sides once again proved to be elusive.

Article 1, the work group’s general bylaw proposal that would have prohibited corporate ownership of short-term rentals, restricted the number of short-term rental properties to one per owner, and limited the number of times a home could be rented during the summer months, was defeated and it wasn’t particularly close. The 431-523 vote also doomed Article 2, a zoning bylaw that would have made short-term rentals an approved use in every island zoning district, as the two proposals were linked. If Article 1 was defeated, Article 2 could not be passed, and so voters quickly decided to take no action on the zoning bylaw after the general bylaw went down in flames.

Confusion reigned at points during the debate on Town Meeting floor Tuesday night, as multiple amendments were offered, tangential issues like the linking or de-linking of Articles 1 and 2 and where to draw the line on what would be considered a “new” short-term rental under the bylaw, bogged down the discussion.

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Bobby DeCosta speaks on Town Meeting floor. Photo by David Creed.

“I kind of pride myself on knowing what we’re doing, but I have no clue what we’re voting on right now,” former Select Board member, scalloper and charter boat captain Bob DeCosta said. “We’re splitting? What the hell are we splitting?”

DeCosta’s comments came amid the debate over Select Board member Matt Fee’s motion to amend Article 1 by “de-linking” it from Article 2 (meaning Article 1 could be adopted even if Article 2 failed), and to narrow Article 1’s definition of the properties that would be grandfathered and entitled to nine occupancy changes in July and August, versus those that would be considered new short-term rentals, permitted to have four rental contracts during the high season. Fee argued those grandfathered should only be properties that could prove they have rented on a short-term basis in the past and paid taxes to the state, rather than the work group’s proposal to allow all dwellings with a certificate of occupancy on the date of passage the right to nine rental contracts during the summer.

The first part of Fee’s motion de-linking the two articles passed, although moderator Sarah Alger emphasized that it was only in one direction, meaning Article 1 could pass without Article 2, but not vice-versa. The second part of Fee’s motion was defeated.

The debate then turned to the merits of the work group’s general bylaw proposal.

Short-Term Rental Work Group member Jim Sulzer. Photo by Kit Noble

“It’s actually, I think, a lot simpler than all those pages would suggest,” said Jim Sulzer, referring to the text of Article 1 in the Special Town Meeting warrant which spanned 13 pages including the Finance Committee’s motion. “The regulations in Article 1 are a direct reflection of the values, which were pretty simple, that guided our Short-Term Rental Work Group. Those values include: protect the time-honored tradition of home rentals on Nantucket; avoid adverse impacts on the local economy stemming from a loss of existing short-term rental revenue; prohibit additional corporate ownership and discourage investment-only ownership of residential properties as STRs; and reduce the neighborhood churn caused by numerous turnovers of occupancy.”

But it became clear that many were unconvinced the work group’s bylaw proposals had gone far enough to address people’s concerns regarding short-term rentals operating in residential neighborhoods.

“I was disappointed that Article 1 as brought forward essentially grandfathered in the existing corporate-owned residential STRs that are in residential neighborhoods, thereby sort of rewarding those corporations that have started to create this problem for us by allowing them to keep doing this in perpetuity while preventing others from doing so,” said former Select Board member Michael Kopko. “So I think at the end of the day, this article as written is too onerous and byzantine on property owners and doesn’t do enough to eliminate the possibility of corporate ownership. I urge you to vote this down and obviously article 2 down and come back with something really simple.”

Former Select Board member Michael Kopko contemplates the discussion before speaking at Tuesday's Special Town Meeting. Photo by Kit Noble

In the aftermath of the defeat of Article 1 and Article 2, the Current reached out to some of the primary players in the debate.

“Voters turned out for an issue that’s important to them and made their voices heard,” said Julia Lindner, the executive director of ACK Now, who declined to comment further Tuesday night. “I’m happy to chat tomorrow.”

Planning Board chair David Iverson, who strongly advocated in favor of the bylaw proposals on Town Meeting floor, had more to say.

“There was a concerted effort to confuse the voters because confused voters vote no,” Iverson said. “What happened tonight opens it wide open. Now anyone can have as many as they want, the form of ownership is wide open, the amount you rent is wide open. It’s the wild west…People were confused about the grandfathering, and that’s why I stood up to simplify the grandfathering to say that if you own a house here, whether you rented it or not, you retain that right. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this. I don’t know what the answer is. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can come up with a viable answer and get it through Town Meeting.”

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