Short-Term Rental Proposals Still In Limbo, For Now

JohnCarl McGrady •

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The Select Board remained divided on the Short Term Rental Work Group’s finalized proposal for new regulations on short-term vacation rentals Wednesday, failing to reach a consensus on whether to recommend the regulations—or even if they would be included on the warrant for November’s Special Town Meeting at all.

After a wave of resignations from the Work Group in the wake of a controversial debate on the proposed bylaws during last week’s Select Board meeting, the board voted unanimously to disband the Work Group and thank the members for their service but did not vote to move ahead with the regulations they proposed.

Select Board members Matt Fee and Malcolm MacNab, whose vocal criticisms of the Work Group were partially responsible for the largely symbolic resignations of six of its nine members over the last week, reiterated their concerns during Wednesday’s meeting, including their shared fear that the regulations are not strict enough and would do little to change the status quo.

As the August 16th deadline for the Select Board to approve the Town Meeting warrant approaches, it remains unclear if the Select Board will vote to block the Work Group’s proposal from coming before voters and whether Fee will fashion a second, competing article. Agreement across the board seems unlikely, and with Chair Dawn Hill Holdgate recused from votes on the Work Group’s proposal due to her employment with a real estate firm involved with short-term rentals, a potential for a tie looms. Town Counsel John Giorgio confirmed Holdgate can vote on the adoption of the warrant, but there may be a path for the Select Board to strike the Work Group’s article while approving the rest of the warrant, which could lead to a two-two tie if Holdgate remained recused. It was not immediately clear what would happen if such a tie vote occurs.

“It's a little unprecedented,” Select Board Vice Chair Brooke Mohr said.

It may not come to that, however. Despite his concerns with the proposal, MacNab expressed hesitance at the idea of striking it from the warrant.

“We are not the legislature,” MacNab said. “The people are the legislature.”

Giorgio recommended a compromise where the Select Board votes to adopt the warrant, but individual members add comments suggesting voters support or oppose the Work Group’s proposal. This would break with the Select Board’s long-held tradition of only making unanimous recommendations but could give Fee and MacNab a platform to object to the proposal while still allowing them to proceed to the Special Town Meeting.

Fee’s primary objection is to the proposal to codify the right to operate short-term rentals (STRs) across the island as a zoning bylaw, which requires a two-thirds majority vote while leaving the rest of the regulations as general bylaws, which can be altered with a simple majority vote. Fee argues people opposed to STR regulations could bring forward Town Meeting articles to scrap the regulations, secure in the knowledge they could block any efforts to repeal the island-wide right to operate STRs. He also argues the move could open up the Town to more litigation.

“I think there's a lot of good [in the proposal],” Fee said. “My biggest concern is the zoning.”

To address his concerns, Fee suggested potentially drafting an article that would incorporate many of the Work Group’s proposals into a zoning bylaw and legalize STRs as an accessory use only, not by right.

“Zoning does not regulate anything nimbly or effectively,” former Work Group member and Planning Board Vice Chair Dave Iverson replied.

Giorgio also emphasized the potential legal risks of codifying STRs as an accessory use only. An accessory use, by definition, has to be an accessory to something. But if a property is used solely as an STR, there is no primary use, putting many island STRs in legal jeopardy if Fee’s suggestion is adopted.

Fee and MacNab were joined by a series of advocates for tougher STR regulations during the public comment portion of the meeting, including Work Group member and ACK•Now Executive Director Julia Lindner.

“This proposal does not, we don't believe, strike a balance, and is not a middle ground,” Lindner said. She echoed Fee’s zoning concerns and what ACK•Now has characterized as the biased makeup of the Work Group.

“It never really felt like the Work Group needed our vote,” she said.

Emmy Kilvert, sponsor of the controversial Article 60 at last year’s annual Town Meeting, which sought to restrict STRs on the island, also spoke against the proposal.

“This isn't a middle ground. Grandfathering properties that have been run as mini-hotels in residential areas is just wrong,” she said. “Please don't give into the pressure I'm sure you're all feeling from big off-island money.”

But many spoke in favor of the proposal as well, primarily former Work Group members who highlighted the need to craft a narrow bylaw that could garner two-thirds support at Town Meeting, bringing together both those critical of STRs and those who rely on them as a source of income.

“I will fight to the last day to get this article on the warrant and approved by the voters,” former Work Group member John Kitchener said.

“Maybe it's version 1.0,” said Work Group and Select Board member Tom Dixon, who claimed that the flexible nature of the bylaw was a positive and not a negative. "It is changeable, it's not final forever.”

“I believe that this group worked together and made compromises and provided us a framework,” Mohr added.

During the meeting, the Select Board also heard an update from Health Director Roberto Santamaria on the Short Term Rental registry, which was approved by Town Meeting voters but has been delayed by Granicus, the company the Town contracted with to create the necessary software. According to Granicus, the Town should have the software capability to go live with the registry by July 26th.

“We've seen how sometimes these deadlines that they give themselves tend to get blown by, but at least they've given us an actual [date] this time,” Santamaria said.

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