Berlin City Council discusses details of rental permit law

By Greg Ellison

(September 30, 2021) The proposed license for short-term rentals in Berlin raised concerns at the mayor’s and city council meeting on Monday, as planning director Dave Engelhart considered a draft ordinance on short-term rental developed in June during a consultancy work. session.

Engelhart’s summary of issues then established by council addressed enforcement of violations, occupancy limits, and license suspension procedures.

Topics discussed at this meeting included parking, noise violations, room sizes, the need to display rental permits on site, and clearer definitions of occupancy limits.

In addition to incorporating the current city code requirement of a minimum of 70 square feet of floor space for an occupant, Engelhart suggested that the requirement be set at 40 square feet per occupant if multiple parties are involved.

The proposed parking requirements included: “an additional off-street parking space must be provided for each room rented totaling three or more rooms”.

“This makes it possible to require in the city code that each housing unit have a minimum of two off-street parking spaces without placing an excessive burden on the owner,” he said.

Engelhart said previous council discussions have indicated that additional wording should be added to allow appeals of license violation or suspension cases to the Berlin Housing Review Board. This procedure would reflect the existing city code.

“Some of them are already on the books to enforce noise or parking,” he said. “It would be just another application of those same ordinances that we have in place today.”

Board member Jack Orris asked if an emergency contact is needed to live within half an hour’s drive of rentals, which are widely marketed through online platforms such as Airbnb or VRBO.

Engelhart said the travel time limit could be added, but the draft order already requires the owner or their agent to live nearby and the owner or agent in charge to be on call around the clock.

Council member Shaneka Nichols asked which zoning districts would be covered by the proposed tenancy rules.

In addition to residential areas R1-4, the ordinance would also regulate short-term rentals in business areas B-1-3 where housing is permitted.

In order to protect neighborhoods made up of single-family homes, the ordinance provides that short-term rentals in neighborhoods R-1 or R-2 are permanent homeowners listed with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.

Engelhart said the restriction was added based on extensive research into licensing rules in other jurisdictions.

“You couldn’t buy six houses off the street and run them all as short-term rentals,” he said.

As proposed, the Tenancy Ordinance would allow landlords to rent out additional rooms or the entire property for limited periods of time.

Council member Jay Knerr questioned the procedures for dealing with violations and license suspensions or revocations.

“Should it be reinforced for noise offenses?” ” he said.

Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said noise-related offenses were reported to the perpetrator.

Knerr asked what circumstances might lead to the revocation of rental licenses.

Engelhart said the language of the ordinance could be changed to include violations of rental rules or any section of the city code.

Knerr questioned whether a “three strikes” rule would be appropriate before withdrawing licenses after they are issued.

City administrator Jeff Fleetwood opposed the number limit.

“I wouldn’t want to classify myself and say three hits using that analogy for a second,” he said. “You might have a violation that doesn’t fit the Richter scale… and that decision can be made at that point. “

Knerr said the city should ensure that procedures exist to avoid lingering problems with short-term rentals.

“You also want the owners to be responsible for these issues,” he said.

Community opinion was the primary concern raised by Council Member Troy Purnell.

“I always want to hear from the public,” he said.

While not yet at the public hearing stage, the council has received comments from several members of the community, including correspondence from Atlantic Hotel general manager Laura Sterns.

Fleetwood read a letter sent by Sterns that day against the rental regulations.

Sterns, who moved to Berlin from Ocean City 15 years ago, is currently on the Berlin Historic District and Parks Commissions.

“I have a vested interest in this city,” she said.

Until recently, Sterns did not envision short-term rentals causing problems in Berlin.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect Airbnb to be a problem until it was,” she said.

This view was altered after Sterns witnessed a bad example of short-term rentals being used for party purposes.

“I saw a party where an alcohol tent was left fully stocked overnight for everyone who passed by,” she said. “What if minor children had seen this?” “

Sterns said short-term rentals are operated as for-profit businesses that should not be allowed in residential areas.

Berlin Planning Commission vice-chairman Ron Cascio recommended that residential rental rules require landlords to be on site.

“It is a self-checking mechanism,” he said.

Cascio has agreed with Sterns that short-term rentals represent commercial ventures in residential sections, with inevitable issues associated with it.

“I really think we have to nip this in the bud before it becomes a proliferation,” he said. “I know people buy houses with that intention.”

Cascio suggested changing the city’s zoning code to be in line with current demographics and housing needs.

“Currently, it is not permitted under the city code to rent rooms in secondary structures,” he said.

Mayor Zach Tyndall said it was evident that revisions to the language of the ordinances were in order.

Tyndall suggested that short-term rental order violations be tied to that property, not an individual guest.

“Also try to verify what this schedule of violation would look like,” he said.

Board member Dean Burrell acknowledged that short-term rentals are currently operating in Berlin.

“This is our attempt to standardize and put this under some type of control and compliance,” he said.

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