Peter McCausland On The Short-Term Rental Debate

Peter McCausland •

To the editor: Let me be clear from the start. This column is not about short-term rentals [“STRs”]. It is about housing and community. It is long for which I apologize, but I thought it important to review the bidding in case the Short-Term Rental Work Group’s attempt to gut zoning makes it to the Special Town Meeting.

We are not special because we were born here or were lucky enough to come here. Nantucket is special, and it is hard to watch what is happening. In its latest era as a resort community, a big part of the Island’s magic has been the mutual dependency of the year-round and summer members of the community. Sadly, year-rounders can’t afford to live here now. We are losing teachers, town employees, healthcare professionals and others. We are losing our community. At the same time, we have welcomed many people who work for large seasonal homes and STRs, and the businesses which support them, who also need housing. Many of these recent arrivals are living in crowded conditions and most have cars needed for their work. We have become numb to the words “housing crisis,” but it isn’t going away, and it a bigger problem than many people know or like to admit.

There is a disturbing amount of misinformation circulating in Town about STRs, and I would like to set the record straight on a few things:

  • Many houses in year-round neighborhoods have been purchased by investors, driving up prices and rents. Our Island has lost 600 year-round rentals in the last decade. Beach Plum, a 15-year-old, friendly 40(b) is now an STR Park with 27 of the 30 market units now STRs. People who are essential to our community cannot find affordable housing and STR growth has been a major contributor to that fact.
  • Whether or not STRs are legal in residential districts under Nantucket zoning has been a focus of much debate but it is very clear - Nantucket has never allowed purely commercial uses in residential districts. At their core, STRs are commercial; they are used as single-occupancy hotels. Because we are a resort community, STRs are probably permitted as an accessory use, if the house is home to an owner or long-term tenant. This is not a new concept in zoning - it simply means that the residential use of the home (i.e., someone living there) needs to be the primary (or majority) use, not the rental.
  • ACKNow has never been against homeowners renting their homes. We supported Article 60 under which homeowners in residential districts could STR almost as much time as they spent occupying the house themselves. We oppose commercial STRs which are houses no one can honestly call home - houses which are investments for the owner.
  • It is all about zoning. The STR proposals put forth by the Work Group are part of a plan hatched more than 2 years ago when the Chair of the Select Board and the Planning Director, said on live TV that the decision of the highest court in Massachusetts, ruling that STRs are commercial and not permitted in residential zoning districts, necessitated a zoning “fix”. There was no discussion of housing or disruption of residential neighborhoods or intensity of use. No, town official just tried to “fix” zoning so that uncontrolled STR growth could continue. Only after being forced by Town Meeting did the town table its first attempt to gut zoning with Article 42 and appoint a Work Group, which unfortunately included many who have direct or indirect financial interests in STRs (yet undisclosed to voters).

The Work Group, unsurprisingly, has proposed a zoning amendment which would encourage uncontrolled STR growth everywhere on Nantucket. They also propose to allow existing commercial STRs to continue, thus rewarding those who opened these mini-hotels in residential neighborhoods and punishing those unfortunate enough to live next door. Incredibly, these proposals protect an investor who recently opened a mini hotel while restricting a resident who purchased their home 50 years ago.

Zoning is about how a property is used, not who owns it. It isn’t fair to treat property owners differently. It is a recipe for litigation. These proposals are Article 42 all over again, ignoring the voters who rejected that attempt.

Should the Work Group’s gutting of zoning pass, any so-called “limits” added by a General Bylaw could be eliminated by a simple majority vote. Zoning articles require a two-thirds vote because towns use zoning to stabilize planning and avoid having to reverse course every year when determining which districts are appropriate for hotels, rooming houses and other commercial enterprises and which are not. People buying homes with a reasonable expectation of quiet enjoyment should be able to rely on zoning without fear of it being changed by a simple majority after their purchase.

Has any lawyer in Nantucket given the unqualified opinion that STRs are a permitted principal use in a residential district? Has Town Counsel? His own law firm sent a warning to clients alerting them that the Styller case spelled trouble for STRs. There are no such opinions, and that is why the town is trying to legalize STRs across the board before it loses in court. Voters should imagine what this proposed zoning change will do to Nantucket. Should the Work Group’s proposals make it to the Special Town Meeting and pass, and STRs are allowed unrestricted growth, Nantucket will become little more than a transient tourist destination and those required to protect and maintain the community such as nurses, police, fire, teachers and others will have to live off-island. Will that be Nantucket’s next era?

  • No one is talking about the intensity of use associated with STRs. Look at the websites and you will find houses for rent that sleep 27 and have a 3-day minimum. On average, an STR has eight occupants versus three for a house occupied by a year-round resident. With 2,500 STRs and counting [up from 500 a decade ago], this results in an extra 12,500 guests during the season. Add another 10,000 people taking care of these mini-hotels or in businesses serving their guests, and you get 22,500 more people here in the season. These numbers can be confirmed by the water company and the police department, but they aren’t talking. This is having an impact on everyone’s quality of life. From the traffic, accidents, and trash, to the crowded beaches and harbors. And there is impact on our environment; have you noticed the murky water in Nantucket harbor or the toxic algae blooms in the ponds? The amount of waste generated by STRs is significant. We are losing the paradise we were so lucky to be born in or find. I am not blaming STRs for all these ills, but I am saying that these mini-hotels are bringing more people to the island than it has capacity to accommodate, contributing to many of these ills. Unfortunately, the Town is only encouraging this unsustainable and unrestricted growth. We can’t let Nantucket join the list of once-upon-a-time wonderful places.
  • There is a lot of money involved. And there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around too. Just look at one of the alternates on the Work Group, who owns one of these “mini-hotels” here, but he publicly opposed commercial STRs in his California hometown. But let me be clear- unlike pro-STR groups, ACK Now is not motivated by personal financial gain. This is a huge difference to consider when weighing the arguments. ACK Now’s position on STRs is driven by a desire to save our community, to make housing more affordable and to inform the public of the very high cost associated with not enforcing our zoning bylaws at the behest of the real estate industry. Nantucket is subsidizing the STR industry on the backs of all voters and property owners on the Island. Can someone tell me why the Town is subsidizing commercial STRs when more than 85 percent of them are owned by off-island investors? This stress on our infrastructure, our environment and our public services is costing us dearly.
  • When the Land Court or the voters decide that commercial STRs are not permitted in residential districts, there will be a financial impact, but that is not a reason to stop advocating for the community. The houses will still be here and require care and maintenance. Nantucket’s economy is resilient and enforcing our zoning laws will have a positive impact going forward.

Of course, there is much to do to alleviate the housing crisis. ACK Now’s Community Initiatives’ Lease to Locals program is a positive step forward. The Town continues to work on housing programs, and the budget override will help, but we must reverse the housing losses. We are all responsible for making sure year-rounders, including the people who protect the community, teach the children and provide health care, can afford to live here.

There is a real need for a constructive dialogue about housing, infrastructure, preserving downtown Nantucket and keeping businesses on island and owned by islanders.

There are powerful and well-funded businesses interests fighting hard to protect their cash cows. They will (and have) called me an elitist saying I and others are trying to “keep people from coming to Nantucket.” This is ridiculous. Nantucket is and always will be a welcoming destination to travelers. The question is, will Nantucket continue to be a welcoming place for those of us who live here? Can we preserve housing options for those who live and work here? Can we maintain and enjoy residential neighborhoods without living next to commercial mini-hotels bringing the party to our front doors?

It is the responsibility of every community member to step up and help when the community is in jeopardy or a neighbor is in need. I and those of us engaged in this effort cannot in good conscience simply sit back and watch us go down this path without a fight. We help when our community is in need.

The purpose of ACK Now was always to raise important issues for voters to think about. I am not that sympathetic to people who are flying in for 3 days and paying dearly for an expensive STR. I am sympathetic to year-rounders who can’t find or afford housing and to all the STR workers who got laid-off when Covid hit and Airbnb lost 40 percent of its bookings overnight. Thankfully, the Community Foundation stepped up to help feed those people. Although some of the STR investors probably helped, I doubt many stepped up to help the community. Even philanthropy is subsidizing STRs.

I hope we can have a real community discussion about these issues and how they are impacting year-round residents today and in the future. Making the wrong decisions today will have dramatic impacts and will send us down a path from which we cannot easily return.

Peter McCausland

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