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ANALYSIS: The short-term rental debate: A Reason Gone Mad series (Part 2)

In Part 2 of his four-part series on the short-term-rental debate and local housing issues, Bill Shein profiles some of those opposed to limiting STRs and investigates an alternate bylaw they've put forward.

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include additional reporting.

In Part 2 of his four-part series on the short-term-rental debate and local housing issues, Edge contributor Bill Shein profiles some of those opposed to limiting STRs and investigates an alternate bylaw they’ve put forward. To read the Part 1 of this series, click here.

The head-snapping twists and surprising turns in the Great Barrington Selectboard’s work to craft a bylaw to regulate and limit short-term rentals (STR) amidst a broadly acknowledged housing crisis have been enough to keep our chiropractors working 24/7 — perhaps goosing the local neck-and-back-pain-treatment industry, while also enabling local columnists to combine “head-snapping” and “chiropractors” into possibly ill-advised sentences.

Yet the ongoing drama shouldn’t overshadow a vital and perhaps existential question: Will Great Barrington find a way to balance powerful financial interests with broader community concerns and goals? Because if and how it does that will determine what the town looks like and who can afford to live here in the future.

Last week, the selectboard again extended its already six-week-long pause on further debate on an STR bylaw. According to the most recent draft, the proposal would limit STRs to 150 days per year (for properties where the owner doesn’t live), block corporations from offering STRs, and codify health and safety requirements. Unlike some previous versions, this one makes no distinction between residents and second-home owners. If approved by the selectboard, it will appear on the annual town meeting warrant and go before voters on June 6.

Great Barrington Selectboard Chair Steve Bannon. Photo: David Scribner

But the draft warrant says the bylaw is “under legal review.” That’s because at its May 11 meeting, Chair Steve Bannon explained that in response to a March 30 email to the board (from the possibly pseudonymous “Allison Bailly”) that alleged three board members had conflicts-of-interest, lawyers from the State Ethics Commission last week advised the town that under the Massachusetts conflict-of-interest law, member Leigh Davis’ home is close enough to a property rented via Airbnb that she can’t participate further in the STR debate, while Bannon’s and member Ed Abrahams’ homes are distant enough (to different Airbnb listings) that they can.

Should discussion resume, that likely leaves only two votes — Bannon and member Garfield Reed, who has strongly supported Davis’ effort to rein-in STRs — for advancing a bylaw initiated to respond to Great Barrington’s lack of available housing. That’s short of the three votes required to pass under selectboard policy (Member Eric Gabriel previously recused himself as he owns rental properties). Of course, this assumes that Abrahams, who has led a months-long effort to block any significant STR restrictions, votes no.

(As reported by The Edge and examined in my March 16 column and the first part of this series, Abrahams’ fiancée, who lives with him, owns a house in Housatonic that she rents via Airbnb. This does not constitute a legal conflict-of-interest requiring recusal, as the 1963 ethics law, amended most recently in 2011, does not consider domestic partners to be spousal equivalents or immediate family. But it has fueled questions about Abrahams’ unusually intense opposition, which has included frequent sparring with Davis over nearly every word of her proposal. At the direction of an ethics commission lawyer, Abrahams addressed the financial interest of his fiancée by filing a “Disclosure of Appearance of Conflict of Interest” with the town clerk last November.)

One option Davis has under ethics-law provisions is to get a real-estate appraisal to determine if the nearby short-term rental truly has any impact on the value of her property (positive or negative). If the appraisal says it doesn’t, there is no longer a “presumed financial interest” and therefore no conflict, and she could again participate.

Leigh Davis. Photo provided

Based on what we know about the location of the short-term rental near her house, and the state of the local housing market more generally, the likelihood of any effect on her property value seems almost comically remote. This highlights what may be a substantial weakness in the conflict-of-interest law in the age of Airbnb, and one that seems likely to be gamed by those seeking to stymie regulation of STRs across the Commonwealth.

Separately, it remains unclear why the proposed bylaw has not been definitively established as a “matter of general policy” that impacts more than 10 percent of town residents which, under the commission’s interpretation of the conflict-of-interest law, would make irrelevant whether a selectboard member lives near a short-term rental. Or if it has been definitively established that it’s not. As to the specifics, Davis would only tell me that she is in discussions with the commission to get clarity on their decision.

This development puts new focus on an alternate STR bylaw that was submitted as a citizens’ petition and that has already been certified for the June 6 Annual Town Meeting warrant. It would lightly regulate STRs but not limit the number of days a property can be offered for short-term rental each year. It was filed by a group of local real-estate brokers, vacation-rental agents and STR property owners who worked on it with Abrahams, according to interviews with several of them and with Abrahams. It is also part of a previously unreported effort to keep Davis’ proposal from even reaching town voters — an organized effort that appears close to succeeding.

Their “Proposed Short-Term Rental Bylaw” would require STRs to register with the town, block corporations (but not LLCs) from owning properties that offer STRs, and, surprisingly, allow those who own multiple Great Barrington properties to offer no more than one as an STR. It would also mandate registration with the town and ensure STRs meet basic health and safety standards. Resembling the regulations approved last year in Stockbridge, it was submitted to the town clerk in late January at a time when the selectboard’s STR bylaw-in-progress would not have allowed short-term rentals by second-home owners and that generated a fierce outcry. That restriction was eliminated during selectboard discussions on Jan. 23.

Those involved with the citizens’ petition have spoken frequently at selectboard meetings since last fall in strong opposition to limits on STRs. Many have benefited, arguably handsomely, from an unregulated, pandemic-fueled short-term rental market and a rush on Berkshires real estate that has rapidly driven up housing prices — and, similarly, real-estate-broker commissions — as local workers and families find themselves with fewer workable housing options and service-industry businesses face challenges finding workers.

Ed Abrahams. Photo provided

Opponents, led by Abrahams, have argued that STR limits will not immediately create more affordable housing. Indeed, that’s been their rallying point, one which consistently ignores Davis’ and others’ repeated statements about how STR limits are meant to address the broader housing crisis, not just affordability, deter investors and speculators, help slow the pace of rapidly rising housing costs, and, alongside other initiatives, ensure there is available housing for those who want to live full time in Great Barrington regardless of income.

Those opposed to limits also point to new affordable-housing developments coming online soon and to other ideas, like Abrahams’ push to incentivize construction of accessory-dwelling units, that could help address the housing crunch. They’ve argued that STR restrictions will have a dramatic and negative impact on the tourist economy and perhaps on longtime residents who want to live in Great Barrington part-time during retirement.

Many of the two-dozen people I’ve interviewed for this series have noted that weekend and vacation rentals have been part of the Berkshires economy for a long time. Short-term rentals through sites like Airbnb are ubiquitous here and part of travelers’ trip-planning to all corners of the globe, so it can take a moment to remember that Airbnb didn’t even exist before 2007 (given our local housing crisis, it’s a dark irony that Airbnb’s founders came up with the idea because they couldn’t afford their San Francisco rent).

Today, rentals through Airbnb and similar online platforms provide travelers with convenience and flexibility. They can be more affordable and enjoyable for a family or group than a block of traditional hotel rooms. Property owners can list and manage short-term rentals on numerous platforms that handle details like booking, payment, and insurance. And a longstanding system of peer reviews provide both renters and property owners with a comfort level that has helped Airbnb, the largest platform, grow to 4.5 million rental units in 81,000 cities worldwide. Great Barrington currently has an estimated 200 active short-term rental units.

Before Airbnb, travelers to the Berkshires stayed (and still stay) at hotels and motels, traditional bed-and-breakfasts, small inns, and with friends and family. For those who could afford to rent a house for a month or longer in the summer or for the ski season, or perhaps for a week, long weekend, or for an event like a wedding, local real-estate agencies served (and still serve) as go-betweens for property owners and prospective renters.

Claudia Laslie, owner of Berkshire Rental Properties and a real-estate broker at Lance Vermeulen Real Estate. Photo via the Lance Vermeulen RE website

Into that scene came Claudia Laslie, a Detroit native who moved to Great Barrington in 2003 with her two young children and set out to make a life here. “It’s hard to make a living here unless you have a trust fund, unless you’re a lawyer … there are limited opportunities in our community,” she told me in an early May interview. So in 2005, long before Airbnb became popular, she established Berkshire Rental Properties, a vacation-rental business focused on what she calls the “luxury market,” with the upscale, turnkey homes she represents renting for as much as $35,000 per month during peak seasons.

“I found this niche, worked really hard, and my business steadily grew,” Laslie said.

Her business lists between 25 and 30 vacation rentals in the region, with eight currently in Great Barrington. They’re generally large properties that are rented seasonally for a month or two at a time, and then for weekends during holidays and in the off-seasons. At this point she doesn’t generally handle smaller properties, she told me, and encourages those owners to either list them on Airbnb or place ads in the Shopper’s Guide to rent their property year-round.

Laslie’s least expensive vacation rental currently goes for around $3,000 per month in winter. “Even the small houses have to be high end,” she said. She told me the properties she manages are largely owned by second-home owners and investors who use their properties only a small percentage of the time.

Laslie, who is also a real-estate broker with Lance Vermeulen in Great Barrington, has been firmly opposed to STR limits, speaking at selectboard meetings and submitting several emails of impassioned testimony. She told me that she’s very concerned about housing availability and affordability here, and also ensuring that local housing is not just for the wealthy. But she thinks limiting STRs is not the answer.

“We’re all hustling like crazy to make this happen,” she said of those who make their living, or additional income, in the vacation-rental space. “These homeowners are really hustling alongside me — the housekeepers, caretakers, and the lawn people, keeping it all going forward, to get their kids through college, maybe take a trip to Europe. Me, I’m just trying to put food on the table for my kids, to keep things going,” she said. “You have to tap the tourist economy. I feel like I’m benefitting the locals as much as the visitors.”

Tony Segalla, a real-estate agent at Lance Vermeulen Real Estate. Photo via the Lance Vermeulen RE website

Her colleague at Vermeulen, Tony Segalla, a 2010 graduate of Monument Mountain Regional High School who has been a real-estate agent for more than six years, also strongly opposes the STR restrictions advanced by Davis. In addition to his work as an agent, Segalla, who lives in Great Barrington with his young family, owns multiple properties that, for the last five years, he has rented out on a short-term basis. His extended family has been in the long-term rental business since the 1990s, and he also owns one long-term rental property.

Segalla and I had a lively discussion about the STR debate, changes in the local housing market, the challenge of being a long-term landlord, and what he thinks about the present and future of the town where he grew up. Young, brash, by all accounts hard-working — and, in my conversations with him, sometimes impolitic — he clearly has strong opinions.

“I don’t think going after STR owners is the key to this puzzle,” he told me. “What’s the point of this witch hunt? It’s been a massive waste of time, a waste of the resources of the selectboard,” he said. He repeatedly took aim at Davis, who he said was pursuing STR restrictions for “personal” reasons he didn’t name.

Segalla acknowledged that the housing market “has been crazy” and that prices are high. “We have a market right now where houses went up 30 or 40 percent in resale value and people are cashing out,” he said. “It’s pushing out a lot of locals who can’t afford it.”

He said he likes to work with local, young, first-time homebuyers, but recent changes in the market have made that more difficult. “They’re just not here anymore,” he said, referring to those who might be pre-approved for mortgages in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

He pointed out that when lower-priced housing comes on the market, it often needs a lot of work and may be a better fit for a buyer who has additional resources to invest. Segalla is, after all, in the business of buying and selling houses. “It’s not our responsibility [as real-estate agents] to create affordable housing,” he said, suggesting that Great Barrington should invest in denser, more-affordable housing development for “people working two jobs, who are hustling in the Berkshires. This is stuff that keeps me up at night,” he told me.

But on the effort to regulate STRs, which he doesn’t think will address any of the housing problems in town, he said, “Great Barrington appears to be going after people [like me] who are making money.”

“I don’t like the idea of just one person in a town shooting from the hip and coming up with bylaws that are going to affect a lot of people and a lot of people’s income,” he told me, speaking of Davis. “It’s just unbelievable. What’s the real reason behind it? They can’t even tell you because it changes every week,” he said, echoing frustration some have felt from a months-long bylaw-drafting process that, while transparent, has seen various provisions come and go. Still, he’s overlooking the many people involved in the process so far, especially opponents like him whose comments at selectboard meetings led to a significant easing of restrictions that were proposed in earlier versions of the bylaw, notably prohibiting STRs by second-home owners.

When I asked Segalla about the impact on neighborhoods if more houses become vacation rentals instead of year-round housing for families, he didn’t consider it a major issue. “In 2022 people don’t even go introduce themselves to their neighbors anymore … That’s just the reality of it,” he said. “You can live next to someone for 10 years and not really get to know them at all, so I’m not really sure it’s changing the character of the neighborhoods much in general. It isn’t really that different from someone from Manhattan or Brooklyn buying it and using it a couple weekends out of the month. What’s the difference?”

He told me that Main Street in Great Barrington is expensive but thriving, and that he believes limits on STRs could threaten that economic activity. He said that stores, restaurants, vendors, and tradespeople in town have “built their business plans” around serving an upscale tourist clientele, which has made Great Barrington more expensive for full-time residents. And there’s little question that’s true.

“It’s not just the retail shops, the restaurants are charging $20 for a cheeseburger, it’s the landscape. It’s what people are willing to pay,” he said, reflecting the current economic reality. “It’s the plumbers who will charge you $20,000 to put in a boiler because someone is willing to pay it. Everybody is kind of taking advantage of this money that’s coming in, and if you put an end to it [by limiting STRs], a lot of people are going to have to adjust their lifestyles,” he said.

Segalla’s take on these issues is blunt, for sure. But his views align with many others in town who believe economic development ranks ahead of other priorities. Others in the local real-estate sector, and especially those who have worked on these issues from other perspectives, often have a more nuanced, holistic view.

Jonathan Hankin, a member of the Great Barrington Planning Board and real-estate broker with Berkshire Property Agents. Photo via the BPA website

Jonathan Hankin, a longtime member of the Great Barrington Planning Board who is also a real-estate broker with Berkshire Property Agents, and who owns a couple of long-term rental properties, confirmed the insanity of the housing market. He told me about houses that list at $350,000 and are sold in just a few days far above the asking price, often via cash offers with no contingencies like inspections.

“Clearly the pandemic has introduced new people into the community and raised prices at an astounding rate,” he told me during a wide-ranging conversation, more of which will appear in the next installment of this series. “There are no affordable houses anymore. It’s really sad,” he said, noting that there’s just not much housing inventory below $300,000.

Hankin told me that prior to 2020, even before the pandemic, when Great Barrington’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund launched a program to provide down-payment assistance, some recipients qualified for the help but then couldn’t find anything affordable to buy. He said the allure of profitable properties purchased largely or exclusively for short-term-rental income has been a factor going even further back. “We’ve been seeing, since Airbnb was created, that people see an opportunity: ‘Hey, I can have a vacation home, use it for two weeks and rent it the rest of the time,'” he said.

At a meeting of the selectboard and planning board’s joint housing subcommittee last September, Hankin said, “It’s clear that the influence of short-term rentals has had an adverse impact on long-term rentals in the town, there’s no doubt about that. And it’s also probably contributed to the inflation of real-estate prices.” He then detailed how the promise of substantially higher profits from a full-time short-term rental overwhelms what can be earned via a year-round, long-term rental.

That money-making opportunity was brought into sharp focus last fall, when Lucas Merchant, the 30-year-old, Boston-based founder of MerGo Vacation Rentals, who also owns a home in Great Barrington and spends time here, bought a billboard in town offering to “monetize your vacation home.” It appeared just as the STR debate was heating up.

When I spoke to him last week, he said his billboard had unlucky timing. It was scheduled and paid for six months earlier, he said, so it was coincidental that it went up when it did. He soon pulled the billboard after public outcry. Still, he was unapologetic.

Lucas Merchant, founder of MerGo and Berkshire Vacation Management. Photo via the MerGo website

“It’s a completely legitimate thing to want to make money from your property when you’re not using it,” he said. “We’re providing a legitimate service to people who pay taxes in the town of Great Barrington. All of our clients are people who live in cities and who have homes in Great Barrington and surrounding towns, and they need to generate some income from their properties when they’re not using them to offset high taxes and high property costs.”

He said his company, which launched its Berkshires business about three years ago, is now the largest vacation-rental manager in South County, managing between 40 and 50 properties. He said his clients tend to use their homes “one or two weekends a month,” so they book “very few” rentals of 30 days or more.

Like everyone I’ve interviewed, Merchant, who told me he loves the Berkshires (he’s getting married this summer at MASS MoCA in North Adams), acknowledged a significant housing problem. But he feels STR limits are misguided, at least as Davis’ proposal relates to housing costs. “Yes, affordable housing is a problem. Are vacation rentals the best and most efficient place to be looking to solve the affordable housing problem? The answer, I believe, is no,” he said. Compared to an urban area, he said, “there’s tons of land, there are tons of buildings in Housatonic, tons of places they could build affordable housing.”

On Davis’ proposal, he repeatedly said her arguments were “alarming” and that her goal was “to bring down property values.” This has become a popular talking point of opponents to STR limits, including Abrahams, but one that misrepresents Davis’ approach. She has consistently suggested that property values are artificially high because of the rush of speculation before and during the pandemic, creating financial incentives to purchase property to use primarily (or exclusively) to generate profits from vacation rentals and from rapidly appreciating property values. Without what she calls “guardrails” on STRs, those incentives have created a feedback loop that’s driving prices even higher.

But Merchant also suggested that opposition is based on more than just STR limits. “The people who are really upset, it’s not even so much about the short-term rentals as the overarching point. Some people are like, ‘Well, if you do this, then what else will you do?'”

With opponents of Davis’ proposed STR limits largely coming from the real-estate and vacation-rental sectors, I wanted to know more about the citizens’ petition STR bylaw proposal they’ve put forward — especially who initiated it and why. As anyone who attends town meetings knows, many factors can influence what voters ultimately approve, including whether something comes up late in the evening after many voters have gone home, and also if there are multiple, similar proposals that might be confusing and hard to untangle in the moment.

In numerous interviews over several weeks, my effort to establish the genesis, purpose and evolution of their STR bylaw quickly resembled a game of hot potato crossed with the classic Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” While many described having a role, or at least participating in some discussions, almost to a person they each initially suggested that someone else was behind it. Getting clarity on Abrahams’ involvement was similarly difficult; everyone I spoke to was hesitant to reveal the extent of his involvement — including Abrahams.

Their proposed bylaw, along with 26 certified signatures, was submitted to the town clerk by Segalla on January 28. (The Edge acquired a complete copy of the filing, including the signature pages, through a public-records request.) The petition signers include Laslie, Segalla, Abrahams’ fiancée (listing as her address the Housatonic house that she rents on Airbnb, not where she lives with Abrahams), other real-estate agents including Lance Vermeulen, owners of STRs who have spoken at selectboard meetings, and various partners and relatives.

The first page of signatures from the citizens’ petition STR bylaw filing.

Laslie first told me that she and local developer Ron Blumenthal, a longtime area resident who has renovated numerous houses and currently owns six long-term rentals in Great Barrington — and whose perspective I’ll share in the next installment of this series — initiated work on the petition. But she said she couldn’t remember “if I brought the idea to Ron or he brought it to me.” For his part, Blumenthal never mentioned Abrahams when I asked him for the names of those involved, saying, “It was really Claudia and Tony’s thing.”

As to Abrahams’ role, Laslie initially suggested it was largely inconsequential, telling me, “I had [Abrahams’] ear so I ran some things by him.” But in a follow-up interview, when I asked for a fuller explanation, it became clear his role wasn’t so minor: “I’d been in contact with Ed the entire time since the short-term rentals [bylaw] came into play and he seemed to be a sympathetic ear. I didn’t even know what a citizens’ petition was. It was something that he said that we could put together, and he helped guide us, and how to go about it, and what we might want to include.”

Segalla, who delivered the documents to the town clerk, at first didn’t want to discuss it, quickly turning the conversation to other issues.

Merchant told me that he didn’t know who initiated the stripped-down bylaw. “I don’t actually know who or where it came from. It definitely wasn’t me,” he said. But I was surprised when he told me that the effort, which he said he participated in via email threads, included discussion of preventing the selectboard’s bylaw from making it to the warrant. At the time, he said, there was concern that Davis’ proposal, which at that early stage included language that would have prevented second-home owners from any short-term rentals, might pass.

“Other people have brought this up,” he said, referring to the discussions. “If this goes to vote, it’s likely going to just go whichever way, because the majority of people voting are townspeople, and if they’re full-time, I think the majority of them will lean towards regulation because that seems better if you don’t have a strong opinion either way,” Merchant said.

He told me that because second-home owners — who are essential to his vacation-rental-management business, and who he felt he was representing in the email-thread discussions — can’t speak or vote at town meeting, their opposition, which was expressed often during the selectboard’s Citizen Speak Time over many months, would not be heard during a town-meeting debate.

A screenshot from MerGo’s website.

When I specifically asked Merchant if those advancing the citizens’ petition sought to keep Davis’ version from coming before voters, leaving only their bylaw with few STR limits, he said that was one of the “main purposes.”

“Really, we’re trying to have this not go to vote, we don’t want this to go to vote,” he told me. When I asked how that might happen, he said, “I’m not exactly sure of what the mechanics of that would look like.”

Indeed, in my conversations with Laslie, she hinted at a strategy to derail the selectboard’s work. “We put this together as an alternative to what’s being presented by Leigh and the selectboard at town meeting,” she said, “and we’re hoping we never even have to get to that point. But if we do get to that point, we wanted to have a lesser, more common-sense approach to having some regulation and some control [over STRs] without overreaching.”

Segalla did tell me last week that the citizens’ petition “was more or less a group effort. I wouldn’t say it was my idea to begin with, I’m not in politics, although I’ve been following this very closely. It wasn’t my idea originally but I think it was what needed to be done,” he said.

Lance Vermeulen, owner of the eponymous real-estate brokerage that includes Segalla, Laslie, and at least one other petition-signer — and who also personally signed the petition — did not respond to a phone message seeking an interview.

Many questions remain unanswered: What is the extent of any behind-the-scenes strategy by real-estate interests in town to prevent Davis’ proposal from reaching the warrant? Was the possibly pseudonymous email suggesting conflicts-of-interest among selectboard members that has paused the process for a month-and-a-half part of it? And does it matter that Abrahams was working with opponents to craft an alternate bylaw to appear on the warrant next to the selectboard’s — one that, notably, would not limit his fiancée’s potential Airbnb income? After all, anyone — including elected officials acting in their personal capacity — can assemble a citizens’ petition, collect the signatures of registered voters, and put a proposal before town meeting.

Abrahams told me that he couldn’t recall who was involved in his earliest conversation about the citizens’ petition bylaw proposal. (He had previously told me that he doesn’t know, and didn’t have any other communication with “Allison Bailly” or whomever sent the email that alleged conflicts-of-interest and included highlighted sections of the state-ethics law.)

“A few of the people who were doing it, who have been vocally opposed, asked about it,” he said. “I don’t see a problem, helping a citizens group. Again, I didn’t write it, they did,” he said. “I feel part of my job is helping people with process, whether or not I agree. They wanted to have something on there that says [STRs] are allowed. So they wrote that. I sent them Lenox and Stockbridge [bylaws] and they pieced it together.”

Abrahams also told me that he aided the opponents long before the selectboard began its work on the issue. “I answered their questions very early on. Theirs was filed before we really started talking about it,” he told me.

But that’s not quite true. The citizens’ petition was filed with the town clerk on January 28, 2022, while work on Davis’ far-more-restrictive bylaw proposal began last September 21 in the housing subcommittee. A joint meeting of the selectboard and planning board that included discussion of STRs was held on November 8. A second joint meeting of the boards, held on November 29 specifically to discuss STRs, lasted more than two-and-a-half hours. The selectboard then held two long, contentious debates about the STR bylaw on January 18 and January 23.

It was at the November 29 joint meeting that Davis said her priority in the drafting process was to confront “a zero-percent vacancy rate in town” and ensure residents “can vote upon, or amend, or throw out the door” an STR bylaw at town meeting, while a skeptical Abrahams raised concerns that he would repeat for months. It’s worth noting that Abrahams filed his Disclosure of Appearance of Conflict of Interest about his fiancée’s Airbnb on November 16, nearly two weeks before the November 29 meeting, so he already knew the process was well underway.

Abrahams told me that he’s helped others with citizens’ petitions, including a group of local activists who in 2018 proposed the town’s current ban on single-use water bottles — even though he was opposed to their idea. “They said, ‘How do we do this?’ I don’t remember if I suggested a citizens’ petition, it was a long time ago. I remember meeting with them early on in the process. I don’t want to take credit for saying I suggested a citizens’ petition, but I know I worked with them on that, despite not liking it,” he said.

“The biggest complaint we often hear is people don’t know how to get involved, and I feel that’s part of our job, is answering their questions,” he said. It’s true that Abrahams is perhaps the most outspoken local leader when it comes to encouraging active citizen participation on volunteer town committees, at board meetings, and by attending the annual town meeting. “I do it for people I disagree with also, like with the water-bottle [proposal],” he said. “It’s remarkably simple to get involved in local politics, but also a lot of people don’t know how, or that they can.”

When I talked to Jennifer Clark, who as part of the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group (BWAG) put forward the 2018 citizens’ petition that ended the sale of single-use plastic bottles in Great Barrington, which the group followed by installing downtown water-bottle-filling stations, she explained that their proposed bylaw was taken “almost verbatim” from one that went into effect in Concord, Massachusetts, in 2013. She wouldn’t comment on what role Abrahams played.

Voters at the 2018 Great Barrington Annual Town Meeting lift yellow cards to indicate their support for a ban on plastic single-use water bottles. Photo: David Scribner

Abrahams’ opposition to their proposal was based on what he said was the impact it would have on small local merchants that sold bottled water, but he expressed support for reducing plastic waste. Despite his opposition, he “nonetheless applauded the initiative of BWAG in raising public awareness,” according to an Edge news story.

Meanwhile, in an odd twist that may have been a drafting error, the citizens’ petition bylaw includes a clause taken from Stockbridge’s new bylaw that would generally keep property owners from offering more than one property as a short-term rental. It blocks what the state’s short-term-rental law calls professionally managed units from being offered as STRs. The law defines them as “1 of 2 or more short-term rental units that are located in the same city or town, operated by the same operator and are not located within a single-family, two-family or three-family dwelling that includes the operator’s primary residence.”

The phrase “professionally managed” is certainly confusing, as it implies a large enterprise. But if Average Joe (or Median Josephine) Resident purchases a couple of houses to rent via Airbnb, under the citizens’ petition STR bylaw only one could be offered for short-term rental. (This excludes units in an up-to-three-unit, multi-family home if the owner lives in the building.)

When I asked Segalla and Laslie about this, they said they weren’t sure of the intent of that part of the bylaw they presumably wrote, which, if passed, would appear to limit Segalla to offering only one of his Great Barrington properties as a short-term rental. (Their proposal can be amended at town meeting.)

Related to possible misunderstandings around that definition, opponents of Davis’ proposal have argued that instead of limiting STRs, the town should just implement an optional, state-permitted three percent “Local Option Community Impact Fee” on STRs and direct those funds to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Also “pending legal review,” the June 6 warrant includes two provisions to do just that.

But under the state’s short-term-rental law, that 3 percent tax can only be applied to the aforementioned “professionally managed units” of which there may not even be that many in Great Barrington, limiting the amount of potential revenue, and that would be prohibited by the citizens’ petition STR bylaw. The tax can be applied to STRs in multi-family units in which the owner lives, as described above, and there’s a separate warrant item to implement it for those rentals.

I emailed Chris Rembold, Great Barrington’s Town Planner and Assistant Town Manager, seeking clarification and an estimate of the number of qualifying properties under the two warrant items, but did not hear back in time for this column.

With a little more than two weeks until town meeting and even less time for final approval of warrant items by the selectboard, it appears that whatever strategies opponents executed to block Davis’ proposal, and derail months of work by the selectboard and town staff, have succeeded. Who actually drafted and sent the so-called “Allison B.” email, which contained very specific references to state ethics law and made proceeding with work on the bylaw impossible, remains a mystery for now.

As I reported last week, The Edge has not yet been able to identify the alleged author as a Great Barrington resident or property owner, and an email sent to the sender’s email address has not received a reply.

When I asked Segalla if he knew anything about the possibly pseudonymous email that helped derail the selectboard’s work, he said he didn’t. “But clearly someone did their homework,” he told me. “There’s a lot of people who are against this thing. You’re pushing people to the point that they have to really dig to put this thing to sleep. Is this really a good time in the world to be telling people, changing how people live their lives? We’ve gone through so much over the last two years … this is not a good time to be restricting how people make their money.”

It seems increasingly likely that voters will only have the citizens’ petition STR bylaw to consider on June 6 — a proposal advanced primarily by those who have profited from the explosion in housing values and who do not appear terribly concerned about current trends. How substantially their proposal could be amended, particularly by those who favor the type of limits on STRs that Davis has advanced, remains to be seen. Town Moderator Michael Wise told me this week that changes to a warrant item are “subject to the usual rules, namely amendments can’t take it beyond the scope that’s advertised in the warrant.” He’ll have to apply relevant town meeting rules and established guidelines to make those judgments in real-time.

Ultimately, if Davis doesn’t resolve her issue with the Ethics Commission in time, there is another option. Abrahams, who told me he’s previously helped advance to town meeting proposals he opposes, could cast the needed third vote to put the selectboard’s STR bylaw on the warrant. That would fulfill his oft-stated desire to engage more residents in local politics, and give them an opportunity to cast their votes for or against something that may determine what Great Barrington looks like in the future.


UP NEXT: In part three of this series, I’ll look at what’s happening to renters in this challenging housing environment as they struggle to live and work here, how local businesses are coping with staffing challenges that accompany a tight, and expensive, housing market, and who is going to build the housing that’s needed for an economically (and otherwise) diverse population — if such diversity is, in fact, what Great Barrington wants.

Bill Shein writes a weekly column for The Edge.


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