Voters Again Reject Short-Term Rental Restrictions. What's Next?
Jason Graziadei •
For the third straight year, Nantucket voters rejected an effort to restrict short-term vacation rentals on the island. And once again, it wasn't particularly close.
Emmy Kilvert's citizen petition - Article 60 - was defeated during Saturday's Annual Town Meeting by a wide margin, as 558 people voted against her warrant article, with just 378 voters in favor. The zoning bylaw amendment was backed by ACK Now, the controversial political action non-profit group that has unsuccessfully pushed to restrict short-term rentals on Nantucket over the past three years, while also mounting legal challenges in the courts that remain pending.
Back in 2021, ACK Now's initial proposal to restrict short-term rentals - Article 90 - was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin (625 to 297), so last Saturday's results perhaps show some incremental gains for ACK Now, but not nearly enough to approach the two-thirds majority threshold necessary to pass a zoning bylaw amendment.
After that vote two years ago, then-ACK Now executive chairman Tobias Glidden vowed that the group would be back with future proposals, stating "Nantucket will regulate short-term rentals, it’s not a question of if, but when."
That day has not yet come, and voters on Saturday appeared no closer to finding common ground on the divisive issue. Meanwhile, ACK Now - which is funded and founded by Peter McCausland, a longtime Nantucket summer resident and the retired CEO of Airgas Inc. - does not appear to be going anywhere either.
Many opponents of Article 60 said its supporters wrongfully believed its passage could make a dent in the island's affordable housing crisis, and that short-term rental properties would suddenly be converted back to year-round rentals or sold to working families.
"It’s not going to secure homes for locals when our average home price is $4.5 million," Jen Shalley Allen, principal broker of Fisher Real Estate, said on Saturday. "I’m really worried we’re lumping in what’s happened in our real estate market and what is happening with affordable housing, with property rights."
But it was also clear during Saturday's extensive debate that the concerns numerous island residents expressed about the impact of short-term rentals are not going away, and are growing louder.
"We’ve done absolutely nothing to try to stem the tide of mostly affordable year-round rentals being lost to short-term rentals," said former Select Board member Bruce Miller, while he noted the millions spent on affordable housing. "I think the statistic is that over the past 10 years something in the vicinity of 500 houses have been converted to short-term rentals. We could spend $1 billion dollars and we could never replace those houses. For us to continue to do nothing in the face of what is obviously a crisis that is only getting worse, is I think to keep our heads buried in the sand."
It's unclear exactly where that statistic came from, but Miller's point was emphasized by others who took the microphone at Town Meeting.
"Nantucket is a community, not a commodity," said island resident Allyson Mitchell. "Every time a home turns into a strictly short-term rental business, that’s one less home for the labor and delivery nurse who’s delivering our Nantucket natives."
On Saturday and in the run-up to Town Meeting, a handful of prominent island residents - including Dr. Tim Lepore, Carl Jelleme, Scott O'Connor, Ron Winters, and Liz Winship, among others - added their voices to support Article 60 and to raising the alarm over the impacts of short-term rentals.
While their endorsement of Article 60 did not result in its passage on Saturday, their advocacy was notable in the high-stakes campaigns that surrounded the controversial warrant article.
As Great Point Properties broker/principal Bill Liddle noted in the high school auditorium on Saturday, the revenue generated by short-term rentals on Nantucket each year is even larger than the town's $116 million general fund budget.
"My concern is this is big business, there's a lot of pressure to satisfy everyone, and that’s difficult - nearly impossible," Liddle said. "This is not going to get any easier."
And yet the Select Board, Planning Board, and Finance Committee members got their wish: voters rejected short-term restrictions on Saturday, giving the Short-Term Rental Working group a clear runway to the Special Town Meeting in November.
Many voters on Saturday argued that the group should be allowed the time to gather the necessary data and build consensus around short-term rental restrictions that have buy-in from the various factions that have been assembled at its table.
The Short-Term Rental Working Group - established by Town Meeting in 2022 after short-term rental proposals were tabled last year - has been working since October to do just that. While some are hopeful its members will be able to strike a balance, others remarked on what they perceived as a lack of progress. Meredith Lepore, the Board of Health's appointee to the working group, recently resigned over those concerns. Her father, Dr. Tim Lepore, warned voters on Saturday "you have to remember when you're dealing with a committee, that a camel is a horse, designed by a committee."
But Short-Term Rental Working Group member Jim Sulzer spoke at length on behalf of the group on Saturday, outlining the work it has done, where it has found consensus, and shared some of its policy ideas. Sulzer said the working group was attempting to find a "safe middle ground," and committed to having its proposals ready to submit to the town by early July in preparation for the November Special Town Meeting.
"We implore you to let us finish the job, and come back before you in November," Sulzer said. "We ask you to vote no on Article 60."
One path that the Short-Term Rental Working Group has discussed - and one that was raised by both Sulzer and island resident Henry Sanford on Saturday - was the measure approved by the town Great Barrington in western Massachusetts. A tourist destination in the Berkshire Mountains, Great Barrington voters passed a bylaw last year that limits individuals to operating one short-term rental each in the town, and prohibits corporate-owned short-term rentals except for LLCs that disclose all their members. The Massachusetts Attorney General recently approved the bylaw.
Could Nantucket's working group take a similar approach?
"Look at Great Barrington," Sanford said. "They banned corporations. Simple as that."