Short-Term Rental Debate Reignited

The decisive vote against restricting short-term rentals at Town Meeting last month wasn’t the end. It appears it was just the beginning. Not only is the ACK Now group led by summer resident Peter McCausland intending to bring back a new proposal to curb short term rentals next year, the town itself will be weighing potential actions including bylaw changes to address the controversial issue. 

The island’s elected officials waded into that minefield with candor Monday night during a joint meeting of the Select Board and Planning Board. With the echo of Town Meeting’s 625 to 297 vote against ACK Now’s proposal to restrict and regulate short term rentals on Nantucket still fresh, the two boards weighed in on the thorny subject and discussed possible next steps.  

“We’ve got a fundamental question to answer: what is the problem that we’re trying to address?” asked Select Board member Dawn Hill Holdgate. That question resonated with board members on both sides of the issue on Monday. 

“It’s quality of life in the neighborhood. It does have impacts,” Select Board member Matt Fee said of short-term rentals. “If we’re going to limit them in some manner or fashion, where do you draw the line and how do you draw a line that’s fair?”

Fee, who owns and operates the Something Natural bakery and sandwich shop on Cliff Road, believes short term rentals have impacted his ability to hire staff. He doesn’t see the groups of young people applying for jobs and going in together to rent a house for the summer. Other summer kids who have worked from him in the past and lived at their parents second home now require housing themselves because that house is now being rented during the season. 

“I don’t think we as an island can build out ourselves out of it,” Fee said. “I don’t think we can build enough affordable housing or summer workforce housing in competition with the demand from outside.”

For Planning Board member Dave Iverson, it came back to trying to answer Holdgate’s question: “What is the issue we’re trying to fix?” Iverson asked. “Is it a common decency issue with renters? Or is it rentals? I have a problem taking away things people already have. People base economic decisions on choices they’ve made and for us as s town to wipe that out is tough. Rentals have some issues, but we are a resort community and every resort community depends on short term rentals in some way shape or form.”

Much of the discussion on Monday centered on a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision involving short term rentals known as the Lynnfield case, or the Styller case, and how it might translate to Nantucket. The case reached the SJC after Alexander Styller, the owner of a home in Lynnfield, Mass., appealed a decision by the local building inspector that prohibited him from offering short term rentals of his home based on the fact it was located in a residential zoning district. After losing at the local Zoning Board and the Land Court, Styller appealed to the SJC, which also ruled to uphold the building commissioner’s decision. The decision stated: “short-term rental use of a one family home is inconsistent with the zoning purpose of the single-residence zoning district in which it is situated, i.e., to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood.”

The ramifications of the decision on cities and towns across the state that are dealing with the short-term rental issue are still being assessed, but at least one Planning Board felt strongly that it should apply to Nantucket in a similar fashion. 

“Right now the way I look at it, I’m a lawyer, we’ve got town counsel here, given the language of our bylaw, given the Styller decision, in Nantucket short term rentals are not residential uses which are permitted until something changes,” said Planning Board member Fritz McClure. 

Town Counsel John Giorgio, however, said the SJC decision was not as cut and dry as McClure described it. 

“The court pointed out that each community is different not just in terms of their zoning bylaw, but in terms of the fabric and structure of the community,” Giorgio said. “And so I don’t think we would be quite as black and white in saying short term rentals can never exist in a residential zone. Also the court pointed out accessory uses would be an avenue that would permit short term rentals. The problem the Styller decision creates, however, is the opportunity for folks to bring enforcement actions, to request zoning enforcement from all.”

Planning Board member Nat Lowell agreed. 

“We’ve been in the rental business since the 1890s,” Lowell said. “Zoning started in 1972. We have a lot of preexisting uses, like rooming houses, B&Bs. You could make the case this is a preexisting use from way before zoning.”

Planning and Land Use Services Director Andrew Vorce said at the end of Monday’s meeting that he would work with his staff to prepare zoning and general bylaw amendments for the boards’ consideration that would essentially codify the existing use of short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. “If we’re doing the use now and somehow based on this evolving interpretation we’re now outside the bylaw, we should fix our bylaw,” Vorce said. 

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