WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Town officials agree that they need to take no action at the local level in response to the commonwealth's new law on short-term rentals.
But they are urging local homeowners to register their properties with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.
Late last year, in response to the explosion in short-term rentals because of the success of online services like Airbnb and VRBO, the Legislature passed a regulatory regime that was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Among other things, it makes short-term rentals subject to the same rooms and meals tax paid by hotels and motels.
"If you're under 14 cumulative nights [per year], you don't have to pay the tax, but, as of right now, you have to go through the registration process to prove you're not over 14 nights," Town Manager Jason Hoch told the Select Board at its Monday meeting.
Board member Hugh Daley started the discussion by asking Hoch whether the town needs to be looking at passing local ordinances as is being considered in other parts of the county.
"There is a ton of uncertainty about what ultimately will be able to be regulated, who regulates, what part of the building code applies and doesn't apply," Hoch said. "Part of this [state] regime may be challenged legally.
"My preference is to let those who feel most zealous be the test cases and let the dust settle. Rushing headlong into this two weeks into it without feeling the same feeling of crisis that other communities have may not make sense. We will respond based on what we learn."
Although local hoteliers have expressed frustration about the unfairness of a previously unlevel playing field, there have been no sustained calls for town action on Airbnb rentals. The short-term rental issue has most frequently been raised in the context of a Planning Board proposal to relax the town's rules on adding accessory dwelling units on private homes.
Town government may not perceive a "crisis" with the recent gain in popularity of short-term rentals, but officials are concerned that homeowners who offer their properties for vactioners do not run afoul of the law.
"I don't think our goal is to get people to stop leasing Airbnb rooms," Daley said. "We sometimes say around here that we need 1,000 rooms in the summer and a hundred rooms in the winter. You can't build a hotel economy around that.
"This Airbnb thing has solved some of that problem for us. To the degree we can help people do it legitimately and stay out of problems with taxing authorities, that's a good thing."
Select Board member Andy Hogeland agreed.
"The big issue right now is publicity," Hogeland said. "The short-term rental operators know who they are, but they may not know this is happening. … I'd support telling them that the registration is happening."
Hoch said the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce is talking about doing a workshop for homeowners who rent their properties to explain the new regulations.
"That's the most notable thing I think everyone today in Williamstown should think about: There is a new regime," Hoch said in a meeting telecast by the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "It shouldn't be onerous to go through it.
"We rely on those rooms in the summer. It's important to our economy that we maintain those. I'd be concerned if people get frustrated and say, 'It's not worth my while.' On the other hand, it brings people under the taxation regime everybody else is under."
One of the businesses already operating well under that regime was before the Select Board on Monday for an all-alcohol hotel license. Navin Shah, the manager of the soon-to-open Fairfield Inn on Main Street, applied for the license to operate a small bar at the property.
Shah, who was traveling out of the country, was represented at the public hearing by his attorney, Stephen Pagnotta of North Adams' Donovan, O'Connor & Dodig.
Pagnotta told the board that the hotel will have a breakfast area and bar totaling a little more than 1,000 square feet. There will be seating for 55 in the breakfast area and eight seats at the bar.
"We're anticipating serving travelers who are checking in and maybe want to have a drink in the evening," Pagnotta said. "We can't prohibit someone from outside coming in, but we're not going to be advertising for that."
Pagnotta said Shah hopes to have the hotel open at the end of February, adding, "but that might be a tad optimistic."
Shah was awarded the all-alcohol innkeeper's license; the board also approved an annual wine and malt restaurant license for 413 Bistro LLC, operating as Berkshire Palate, 240A Main St., with Zachary Brassard as manager. Brassard said the plan was to offer craft beers and high-end wines at the restaurant.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board unanimously approved a glowing annual evaluation for Hoch.
Chair Anne O'Connor composed the review, which was based on written feedback she received from her four colleagues, who in turn had interviewed members of town staff and stakeholders in the community.
"The Select Board is unanimous in giving Jason Hoch high marks," O'Connor said, reading from the letter that the board approved. "Key accomplishments include the shepherding of the new police station project, the support provided by Town Hall on behalf of the Mount Greylock Regional School building project, assistance in bringing Williamstown under the umbrella of the Northern Berkshire EMS Service, and bringing new energy to the town's relationship with the Fire District.
"Without seeking the spotlight, Mr. Hoch has been a reliable, accessible and level-headed resource for our community partners and he continues to nurture strong relations with neighboring communities."
O'Connor's letter specifically noted Hoch's "adroit management of the annual town budget" and ability to focus on big-picture goals.
Hoch, in turn, reflected praise back on the experienced staff at Town Hall.
"The town is blessed with an extraordinary staff," he said. "They give me the opportunity to pursue some of those bigger picture things."
One big-picture initiative on the launch pad in town is the creation of an ad hoc Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.
Following the model of the town's 2015 Economic Development Committee, the Select Board wants to appoint a seven-member panel to consider "opportunities for enhancement and potential expansion of recreational activities" in town and present a report by early 2020.
Hoch asked the board members to send him recommendations of potential appointees with the goal of having a slate of seven community members who have agreed to serve ready to appoint at the board's Jan. 28 meeting.
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Lever Seeks Applicants for Mohawk Trail Entrepreneur Challenge
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Entrepreneurs have about two weeks to apply for a grant program that looks to support sustainable, woodland-related businesses.
Lever Inc. in North Adams is hosting the Mohawk Trail Entrepreneur Challenge, which offers a prize of $25,000 to the winner and guidance in developing a business plan to all who apply.
It is the latest in a series of challenges organized by Lever, which has helped launch 46 new companies in the Berkshire regions since its inception in 2014.
This time around, Lever is partnering with the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, a collaboration of 16 municipalities in Franklin and Berkshire County's Mohawk Trail (Route 2) corridor whose core mission includes "natural resource-based economic development."
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