The Day – Noank Zoning Commission proposes rules for Airbnb, Vrbo rentals

Groton – Almost two years after withdrawing a previous proposal to regulate short-term rentals, like Airbnb and Vrbo, the Noank Fire District Zoning Commission released a new draft order. This would regulate rentals that last less than 30 days.

The ordinance would prevent rentals to more than one party for a two-week period and limit occupancy by short-term tenants to 45 days per year. At least one tenant in each group must be over 25 and gatherings of more than 16 people are prohibited.

Short Term Rental, or STR, the operator or designated agent must respond within 20 minutes of being contacted regarding an emergency or complaint.

Short-term rental operators must have a permit, which they can only obtain if they have owned the property for at least three years, and which must be renewed each year. The draft ordinance also requires a certain number of off-road parking spaces depending on the number of rooms to be rented, prohibits rental advertising signs and provides for penalties in the event of infringement.

Sylvia Rutkowska, a lawyer representing a growing number of short-term rental operators and their allies, said her clients “are ready to take whatever action is legally available to them” to fight the proposal.

Under the 2019 proposal, a unit couldn’t be rented more than 34 times a year, and someone had to respond to a problem within 60 minutes. There was a public hearing in June 2019, but the commission withdrew the proposal that summer, after residents expressed disappointment at not being involved in the drafting process.

The commission held workshops in August and September, then went into “development mode,” President Rick Smith said, holding “business meetings” and no longer accepting public comment. Members were happy with the draft proposal earlier this year and then met their lawyer in executive session.

The next step is to organize what Smith calls an “entry public information meeting”. Smith said this gives the commission the flexibility to subsequently make changes to business meetings before proceeding to a formal public hearing. After that, the only options are for the commission to approve, withdraw, or make minor changes.

Smith said the commission plans to have a special meeting this week to schedule a public input session in June; otherwise, this session would probably not take place until July.

In the commission April 20 meetingMember Lynne Marshall said 90% of comments could just be “complaining about things and things we’ve heard before”. Smith agreed, saying he hopes that with the remaining 5% or 10%, “we’re going to have people say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing, but if you want to do it, do it. this way, not this way. ‘”

Smith told The Day on Friday: “We look forward to a strong public briefing where all parties feel like they have been heard.”

Rutkowska, who was selected in the fall to represent the interests of short-term rental operators and supporters, said her clients “have not felt heard to date.” She called the proposed regulations arbitrary and spoke of trying to preserve property rights.

Rutkowska submitted a Freedom of Information Act application to the commission which was completed in March, and she said the most shocking thing “was the mocking tone of some of the emails between commission members and staff.”

One example she cited was a December 2019 email from Smith to Zoning Officer Bill Mulholland that said it “would be delightfully ironic if we went through all of this and ended up with a MORE restrictive rule” than the original draft. lawyer John Casey.

“I use humor to deflate tension in stressful times,” Smith said Friday. He said his attitude was, “If we end up, later, with something more restrictive or that people like less, wouldn’t that be ironic?” I wasn’t saying that’s what I wanted to happen; opinion.”

The present situation

In November 2019, the commission said there were 25 short-term rentals in the fire department. Commission Member Dana Oviatt said last month that he came up with 26 or 27, and a recent review of The Day showed 28 separate listings on Airbnb and Vrbo, some of which also appeared on Wimdu, HomeToGo, Flipkey. , Tripping or Tripadvisor.

But the commission also referred to a report by short-term rental compliance company Harmari which indicates that there are 46 active and intermittent listings at Noank.

CEO Allen Atamer said in an email that Harmari monitors 60 short-term rental websites four times a week at random times. He estimates that this figure will be 20-30% lower when removing duplicate ads. He also said there could be discrepancies in geographic boundaries, and noted that some Airbnb ads display up to 0.3 miles from their actual location.

More than 20 short-term rental operators and supporters, calling themselves Noankers for Responsible STRs, wrote to the zoning commission in late March and early April to oppose the regulations.

Several people who rent their homes have noted that they do so to pay high property taxes, with some trying to keep a family home. Operators noted that they were diligent in finding respectful tenants and that they do not run “party houses”.

Airbnb reviewers often positively describe their homes in Noank as quiet. “We were able to enjoy the peaceful and calm life, fresh, delicious and unpretentious seafood and the warm hospitality of the region,” says one reviewer. Another said, “Literally a refuge from a mad world. Relaxing environment.

Some neighbors who don’t rent their homes have also voiced their opposition to the proposed settlement, saying they can’t tell the difference between tenants and landlords, and tenants support local businesses.

But from 2019 until today, the zoning commission also heard from people who want more stringent regulations. Some would prefer to allow short-term rentals only when the landlord lives there, and others have expressed that short-term tenants do not get involved in the community.

Commission member Nip Tanner said last month that from “things that I have heard walking around the village, I think there is a much larger percentage of the population who are very concerned. by short term rentals which we haven’t heard of “.

The stated objectives of the proposed ordinance include the preservation of tight-knit neighborhoods and civic life that “might otherwise be lost if STR activity were allowed to continue unabated”, protection of the fire department from noise and excessive traffic; and the deterrence of people from replacing long term rentals and permanently occupied dwellings with short term rentals.

The commission has been criticized for not clarifying the source or extent of the disturbances.

Smith said at the April meeting that “that we had one, 10, 20 complaints is irrelevant,” that “just because it didn’t happen on Pearl Street doesn’t mean that won’t happen next week or next year or (on) any other street in Noank. Zoning rules should regulate uses, not users. “

Rutkowska said she agrees that zoning rules should regulate uses, but came to the opposite conclusion. She argued that the commission is trying to create short-term tenants as a separate category of users, claiming that its clients “will categorically say that the way these people actively use the property is the same as you and I use the property. property “- sleeping, eating, relaxing. And noise and traffic problems can also come from permanent residents.

She said her clients wanted the commission to focus on what is really going on and “tailor solutions to these real problems, with the help of these hosts.”

Operator Mary Ann McCandless encouraged the Commissioners in a letter a month ago: “Make a plan to support our community and minimize the problems. We need to make sure that we do not require glasses for people who cannot hear. “

What is happening or not happening elsewhere

Groton City Council had a discussion about short-term leasing to a see you in march. City mayor Patrice Granatosky said the council “will receive recommendations from planning staff regarding our options on how to proceed.” The Analysis of economic and market trends that Camoin Associates produced for the city in 2016 suggested fine-tuning the regulations “to accommodate new uses and emerging businesses in the sharing economy such as Airbnb, Home Away, Uber, etc.”

In Norwich, a committee that includes the mayor, the chairman of the city council, the town planning director and the company’s lawyer have met to develop wording for a new ordinance regulating short-term rentals. Planning director Deanna Rhodes will present the proposed ordinance to city council at a public forum in late May or early June, Mayor Peter Nystrom said. This would encourage short-term rentals in Norwich city center and less than half a mile from public transport.

London’s new mayor, Michael Passero, said his city is not actively seeking regulation but hopes to find a solution, as it is “not uncommon” for him to receive calls from neighbors. He has heard concerns about the holidays, but also from operators who say they couldn’t afford their house if they didn’t rent it out every other weekend.

“We will be interested in following Noank’s experience very closely, as we are dealing with many of the same issues,” Passero said. “It’s about trying to balance competing interests and property rights, and we in New London haven’t found a successful solution that we’re prepared to come up with, either through a city ordinance or through the planning and zoning process. “

In Stonington in 2017, planning staff interpreted existing zoning bylaws to say that rentals under 30 days were not a permitted use and issued a handful of violation notices to homeowners against whom they had received complaints. But the city then revised the regulations and backtracked, saying if residents wanted the city to regulate short-term rentals, they would have to come up with an ordinance and voters would have to approve it at a city meeting. It never happened.

Day Staff Writers Joe Wojtas, Claire Bessette and Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

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