Some Select Board Members Skeptical Of Short-Term Rental Work Group Proposals

JohnCarl McGrady •

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The Select Board reviewed the Short Term Rental Work Group’s finalized proposal for new regulations on short-term vacation rentals Wednesday in a lengthy discussion that ended with no clear consensus on whether the board will send the bylaws on for voters to consider at the special Town Meeting planned for November.

After multiple Select Board members expressed concerns that the regulations would be ineffective, Select Board Vice Chair Brooke Mohr — acting in place of Chair Dawn Hill Holdgate, who was recused — decided to continue the discussion to the Select Board’s next meeting, at which time the public will be able to comment.

“[This proposal] does not change anything that we presently have. It’s just: ‘Maybe later things will get better,’” Select Board member Malcolm MacNab said. “I don’t see any change.”

In a back-and-forth debate with Work Group members and town consultants, MacNab criticized the proposals as slow-acting, potentially unenforceable, and largely ineffectual. Fellow Select Board member Matt Fee, who has long argued that the Work Group’s recommendations should be codified in zoning, which requires a two-thirds majority vote, reiterated his concerns that the current proposals would be too easy to undermine in the future.

The bylaws would limit short-term rental (STR) operators to renting a single property, block corporate ownership unless every shareholder or partner is a “natural person”, and block STRs in units that are deed restricted for affordable or attainable housing, among other restrictions.

Chief among MacNab’s concerns was the provision that exempts - or "grandfathers" - all registered STRs from nearly every proposed regulation until they are sold or transferred, which could take decades. MacNab worries a timeline measured in decades is too long.

“Twenty years, 30 years from now, who knows, we may have nothing left but [STRs],” MacNab said.

His concern was based in part on the stipulation in the Work Group’s proposal that exemptions apply not only to STRs registered when the bylaw goes into effect, but also any STRs registered in the 60 days after the implementation of the town’s STR registration program, which could be a later date. MacNab’s fear, which Fee shares, is that everyone even considering using their home as an STR would register during that period to avoid the full force of the Work Group’s proposed regulations.

MacNab suggested dropping that stipulation from the proposal. But if it was dropped and the Work Group’s proposed regulations went into effect before the STR registration program was implemented, no STRs would be exempted at all.

That could be devastating for island residents who rely on STR income to pay their mortgages or property taxes. Some Work Group members in favor of exemptions felt they were the only way to ensure local residents don’t lose their property rights — or their properties altogether. But Fee thinks there might be a compromise.

“People are putting words in my mouth,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything away from people; I just want to make sure going forward we aren’t ruining the island.”

Fee suggested potentially drafting a companion article to strengthen the Work Group’s recommendations.

Jim Sulzer, a Work Group member, contended that even with a high number of properties exempted, the regulations could still make a difference. He highlighted the one provision that pre-existing STRs would not be exempted from, which would limit all STRs to no more than nine bookings during July and August. Once an STR is sold, that drops to four for a period of five years, at which point it reverts to nine. This could potentially discourage people from buying Nantucket homes for the sole purpose of using them as STRs by making the prospect less lucrative.

“We really believed this was our best idea for limiting investor-owned STRs,” Sulzer said.

Tom Dixon, a Work Group member who recently was elected to the Select Board, also defended the regulations. “The idea that [the Work Group] settled on after 10 months of work was to bend the curve away from STR ownership,” he said.

Anything more radical would have struggled to receive the support of seven of the Work Group’s nine members, the consensus threshold established for any proposal to receive the official endorsement of the Work Group.

But even if the regulations could be effective, MacNab and Fee feel they would be difficult to enforce.

“We have all these wonderful regulations on the island, but we always come down to the fact that they’re nice, but we can’t enforce them,” MacNab said.

Mohr suggested setting the fees imposed on violators at a high enough level to pay for enforcement, erasing any monetary concerns. “It’s not more tax dollars for enforcement,” she said.

Funding wouldn’t be the only hurdle, however.

“We can raise as much money as we want, but if there’s nowhere for someone to live to enforce, what good is it going to do?” Fee asked.

Fee also reiterated his position that Work Group’s proposals should be codified in zoning. “I would be very in favor of a lot of these points if we were doing it as true zoning,” Fee said.

Zoning bylaws require a two-thirds vote to be altered, making them harder to change than general bylaw proposals. The Work Group’s regulations are mostly structured as general bylaws, which can be amended with just a simple majority. The only exception is the provision legalizing STRs by right across the island, which is a zoning bylaw.

People opposed to STR regulations, Fee said, 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.

Town Counsel John Giorgio, Work Group members, and Town consultants have previously argued that a general bylaw is preferable because a zoning bylaw would require strict exemptions from all provisions for any pre-existing STRs and could also be difficult to build consensus for at Town Meeting. If the voters change their minds later, proponents say, that’s their right.

The meeting made clear that the Select Board is deeply divided on the Work Group’s proposal, and the debate on STRs, which has lasted years, is far from over.

“This is going to be a long conversation between now and November,” Mohr said. “We have really just started.”

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