A Rotary city tried to crack down on RISD’s Airbnb. RISD went to court and won

This may not be the last: The Town of Barrington, in response to complaints from neighbors, had tried to sort out the rental issue through its existing single-family zoning laws, telling the host that ‘he couldn’t rent to more than one family or three unrelated people. people in a residential area. The host fired back in state court and last week a judge ruled the city arbitrarily enforced its laws. Now, for the city, it’s back to the drawing board.

The Host is not the horror story of an out-of-state investor who has no connection to a city. It’s the Rhode Island School of Design.

“We look forward to continuing to be a good citizen of the Town of Barrington and to engage in short-term rentals that comply with Rhode Island law,” RISD spokesperson Danielle Mancuso said in a statement. -mail.

James Cunha, City Manager for Barrington, said in an email that the court’s decision was in fact a “split decision”: Barrington will be able to come up with an order that could be approved, and state law won’t not prevent them from imposing some sort of limits on short term rentals. The city council will take this into consideration, Cunha said.

“We will work with RISD for a reasonable accommodation that will address the concerns of the neighbors,” Cunha said.

The episode highlights the difficulty of cities and neighbors as they try to navigate the regulation of next-gen short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo with old-fashioned residential zoning laws.

The set a way to support RISD alumnus Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, a university official told the city’s zoning council.

Airbnb said in a statement that it takes these kinds of issues seriously.

“Short-term rentals help support Rhode Island’s entire economy, and we are focused on working with elected officials to ensure Airbnb can continue to help the state recover from the pandemic and providing an important economic lifeline to our guests, ”said spokesperson Samuel Randall. in an email. “We are also committed to ensuring the safety and security of our community, which is why we have taken cutting-edge measures such as banning ‘party houses’ and parties, setting up a line neighborhood assistance and the offer of an online portal for the police. “

To be sure, call 15 Freemont Ave. a party house would be a bit of a stretch. Parking on a street with no parking was the main problem. Police responded to it a few times after concerns about the size of the events – sometimes when the COVID-19 pandemic limited gatherings – and the noise. Police generally found the size of the event to be less than 15 people. In another case, police said they heard music coming from the property, but it wasn’t really that loud.

“The parties advised to cut back on the music,” one officer noted in a dispatch newspaper.

While it is true that real estate is all about location, location, location, this is also true for short term rentals. And it’s hard to find a better location, at least in Barrington, than 15 Freemont Ave. : It is directly adjacent to Tillinghast Place, a 35-acre property owned by RISD along Narragansett Bay.

Until last year, RISD allowed the general public to park on its lot in Tillinghast Place to access what is known locally as RISD Beach. The school, citing a “sharp increase in the number of visitors” in recent years and the inability of students to get there for lessons, has cut off access to the parking lot to the general public. Although people can still walk to Tillinghast Place, parking is only available for staff, students and faculty with a RISD ID card. There really isn’t anywhere else to park, as resident Ken Block demonstrated.

But there is another way to get ownership if you are not part of the RISD community: you can rent Tillinghast Place for an event. The Airbnb adjacent to 15 Freemont Ave. has become a great place for weddings to rest their tired feet from dancing after the reception, or for people working in their homes who need a place to get away from the sawdust.

Critics of the four-bedroom house, which has a stellar 4.94 rating and which costs around $ 1,000 per night can be split among up to 10 guests, rave about its bay views and his personal touches.

Not everyone is so happy: Neighbors raised issues with parking, event size and noise. (Only one complaint was technically on file, but there is more evidence in the police dispatch logs.)

To respond to the complaints, the city’s zoning officials began investigating in October 2019. The city discovered that under the city’s residential zoning laws, events could not take place there. And if RISD wanted to offer the property for short term rentals, they would have listed it as available only for one “household”: people related by blood or marriage, or no more than three unrelated people. This residential zoning law applies to households in single-family homes and predates the emergence of the booming phenomenon of short-term rental.

The city tried to use its existing “household” law to manage a particular short-term rental, defining the people who rent it as a “household” because they “live together” – in the sense that they were alive and living in one place. place.

It didn’t work: RISD (not Airbnb, which was not a party to the litigation) went to court. On November 12, Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl overturned the city’s zoning council decision.

McGuirl called the argument that people who lived in the same place magically turned into a “foolish” household.

Barrington could come up with an ordinance regulating short-term rentals, but he couldn’t do so with existing limits on “households,” McGuirl ruled. Because of this, the city was acting arbitrarily, she said. She also found that the city acted arbitrarily in choosing this property when in April 2020 at least 16 other properties in Barrington were listed on Airbnb and Vrbo. (“A great place to throw a REALLY big party!” Commented one person of a 14-bedroom Barrington mansion listed on Airbnb.) And she said the blanket ban on “events” had nothing to do with it. rational basis.

Barrington won in one respect: McGuirl’s decision gives the city leeway to write its own bylaws which might be acceptable and would not necessarily conflict with state law. Four Rhode Island cities – Portsmouth, Middletown, Newport and Providence – had addressed short-term rentals in their zoning ordinances. Barrington could do that, and even put limits on the number of people there. But he couldn’t try to turn a pre-existing prescription into a relatively new one.

More and more municipalities, according to people who are worried about the proliferation of short-term rentals, will have to face this problem. Short term rentals have grown in popularity, both as a place to stay for visitors and as a place for homeowners to earn extra cash. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation to create a statewide short-term rental registry. Governor Dan McKee vetoed it. Supporters say situations like Barrington’s show why some action is needed.

“Short-term rentals kind of exploit regulatory loopholes,” said Senator Dawn Euer, a Democrat representing Jamestown and Newport. “This is something that I have seen a lot.”

Brian Amaral can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter @ bamaral44.

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