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After months of wrangling, selectboard sends short-term rental law to town meeting

The board heard nearly 90 minutes of comment from dozens of citizens pro and con before moving the proposal by board member Leigh Davis to town meeting, where voters will debate it and decide its fate on June 6.

Great Barrington — After a protracted period of arguing over details and potential benefits and harms, a divided Great Barrington Selectboard opted last night to send a proposal for regulating short-term rentals to town meeting next month.

The process has been fraught with controversy, as various board members found themselves caught by conflicts of interest — apparent or real — and often bitter debate between those who are convinced that Airbnb-style rentals need to be limited in order to preserve the character of residential neighborhoods and the housing supply, and those who object to limits on how homeowners may use their properties.

See Edge video below of last night’s Great Barrington selectboard meeting. The discussion of the proposed STR bylaw begins at 1:02:05:

The board heard nearly 90 minutes of comment from dozens of citizens pro and con before moving the proposal by board member Leigh Davis to town meeting, where voters will debate it and decide its fate on June 6.

The executive summary and the proposal (click here to see its latest iteration) came out of a meeting on March 23 between Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, selectboard chair Steve Bannon and vice chair Davis.

The latest draft proposal would allow STRs in either a primary or secondary unit. If the owner lives “on-premises,” s/he can rent the STR for an unlimited number of nights. If the owner lives elsewhere, the maximum number of nights it can be rented is 150 days per year, or nearly five months — an increase over the 90 days in the previous proposal: “In cases where the Owner is not residing on premises at the time of the rental, no unit or portion thereof may be rented more than 150 days per year.”

Great Barrington Selectboard Chair Steve Bannon. Photo: David Scribner

“Ninety was too restrictive,” Bannon said. “The 150 days allows people to still do business but preserves the neighborhood.”

All STR operators must register with the town. Only one STR is allowed per owner. Corporations, as opposed to individuals, may not rent out STRs. Limited liability corporations (LLCs) may do so, but relevant details about the LLC, such as the identity of the owner, must be disclosed at registration. Periodic inspections of the premises are mandatory.

Now is where it gets complicated. Under the previous version, STR operators who predated the proposed bylaw would have been grandfathered to operate under some of the old rules, which were minimal. But Pruhenski, Bannon and Davis agreed to eliminate the clause on the advice of the state Ethics Commission.

The Edge learned in early March that Abraham’s fiancée, who currently lives with him, operates an STR in Housatonic. Abrahams consulted with the Ethics Commission, which told him he must file an appearance-of-a-conflict of interest form with the town clerk. Abrahams did so but declined to publicly disclose the filing. If state ethics laws had defined Abrahams’ fiancée as immediate family, he would have been obligated to recuse himself from any involvement in the STR discussion or vote.

A last-minute anonymous email at the end of March alleged multiple and detailed conflicts of interest among three of the four selectboard members deliberating on the policy. The emailer claimed Bannon, Davis and Abrahams all had conflicts of interest because of their proximity to STR units. Abrahams promptly recused himself. The issue subsequently lay seemingly dormant for weeks as the town consulted with its lawyers. After consultations with town counsel David Doneski, the commission determined that the three were not caught by the statute.

Ed Abrahams. Photo provided

Davis disclosed at the beginning of last night’s meeting that, as required by state ethics laws, she had filed an appearance-of-a-conflict of interest form with the town clerk because of the proximity of her property to another property that is currently being used as an STR. According to Bannon, the commission said Davis would not have an actual conflict and could participate in discussions if the grandfathering clause were to be removed from the proposed bylaw.

“It was removed at the recommendation of the Ethics Commission,” Bannon said.

Of the 63 attendees of last night’s meeting via Zoom, roughly 20 spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. Most of those who spoke in favor of the proposal cited the preservation of residential neighborhoods. Others cited Great Barrington’s limited housing stock and the need to prevent STR investors from snatching up homes on the market by paying higher prices than most families and individuals could afford, thereby weakening the cohesion of neighborhoods.

Still others spoke out against the proposal. Some, including Abrahams himself, insisted they should be able to monetize their properties when they were not using them and did not feel they should be unduly limited in doing so.

Some were STR operators, perhaps spurred by an email sent out in advance by Airbnb urging STR operators to attend last night’s meeting, which the company viewed as “an important opportunity for Hosts to let elected officials know of the positive personal and local economic impact that short-term rentals bring to their communities.”

“It’s crucial for Hosts to let the selectboard know that these proposed restrictions on short-term rentals would hurt the local economy,” the email read. “Can we count on you to attend Monday’s meeting?”

Also on the warrant for the annual town meeting is a citizens petition for a different STR proposal delivered to the town clerk on January 28 by Great Barrington real estate agent Tony Segalla and signed by 20 people, including Realtor Lance Vermeulen and Abrahams’ fiancée, Penelope Greene. 

Click here to view the list of signatories and to read the warrant item. It remains unclear what happens if both warrant articles pass at town meeting.

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