The Other Campaign to Curb Short-Term Rentals

Even as ACK Now’s proposal to restrict short-term rentals on Nantucket took up all the oxygen in the room before getting soundly defeated at Town Meeting last month, the group has quietly mounted a second, unheralded effort to combat short-term rentals.

In a first-of-its-kind case for Nantucket, the ACK Now group and a handful of island residents have asserted that a short-term rental home at 14 New Mill Street is in violation of the town’s zoning bylaw because it is a commercial use in a residential district. 

Having been rejected by Nantucket’s Building Commissioner and the island’s Zoning Board of Appeals, the case is now pending before the Massachusetts Land Court, where the Dammin and Riesenbach families have submitted a verified complaint against the town. While ACK Now is not listed as a plaintiff in the Land Court case, the group is financially supporting the litigation, according to its executive director Julia Lindner. 

“This is a first,” Nantucket Planning and Land Use Services director Andrew Vorce said of the challenge to the legitimacy of a short-term rental on Nantucket based on zoning. “This has never come up before.”

Unlike the defeated Town Meeting proposal from ACK Now, the court case is still very much alive. There is also new urgency and attention on the local case after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently ruled on a similar matter involving a short-term rental in Lynnfield and decided that it was inconsistent with the residential zoning district where it was located.

The SJC 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.”

That ruling has roiled the vacation rental home industry in Massachusetts, as well as municipalities like Nantucket that are under pressure to regulate or restrict short-term rentals. 

The building at 14 New Mill Street is an old, unassuming 5-bedroom home that was built in 1820 and is located in the Residential Old Historic (ROH) zoning district. It was purchased by Norman Levenson’s The Copley Group in 2016, then renovated and converted into a short-term rental that goes for as much as $16,000 per week during the summer. Neighbors of the property, including the Dammins and Riesenbachs, have decried the disruption caused by renters, including loud outdoor parties, additional traffic and parking issues, angry confrontations, and what they describe as a lack of accountability from Levenson. The families “have been verbally assaulted by some of the renters when they asked renters to turn down the music or lower their voices,” the complaint states. 

Back in November, Nantucket Building Commissioner Paul Murphy rejected an enforcement request from ACK Now and the neighbors of 14 New Mill Street, stating “in my opinion, the use of the property for short term rentals does not violate the Town’s Zoning Bylaw.” The Zoning Board of Appeals heard the case in February, and after expressing sympathy for the neighbors but reluctance to upend the rental landscape with a policy-making decision, it voted unanimously to uphold Murphy’s decision. Then in March, the neighbors of 14 New Mill Street filed the complaint in Land Court where it remains pending. 

In her testimony to the Zoning Board, Beverly Dammin, who lives next door to 14 New Mill Street, said “we’d like to stop these commercial companies from profiting and disrupting our way of life. We want the town to protect us as homeowners and enforce the zoning laws.”

Attorneys for Levenson have argued that the house complies with zoning because it’s “used as a single family house, regardless of who stays there or for how long” and that such a significant decision should be made at Town Meeting, not by a local zoning board.

Following Monday’s joint meeting of the Select Board and Planning Board, a session in which much of the discussion centered around the Lynnfield case, Vorce said he intends to 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.

 

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