Williamstown Select Board Looking at Short-Term Rentals Bylaw

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board has accepted a "handoff" from the Planning Board to work on a bylaw regulating short-term rentals.
 
But several members on Monday indicated that they doubt the work can be completed in time for approval by May's annual town meeting.
 
The issue of short-term rentals, commonly referred to as Airbnb rentals, was on the Planning Board's agenda at the start of its 2022-23 meeting cycle.
 
After investigating the issue, taking testimony from residents who rent their property through services like Airbnb or Vrbo and writing a first draft of a proposed ordinance, the planners decided that since their regulations were not zone specific, this particular land-use regulation was a townwide question better left to the Select Board to suggest a bylaw to town meeting.
 
"Some towns do this through their select boards, some do it through the Planning Board," Planning Board Chair Stephanie Boyd said. "We did preliminary work and got comments at our meetings. I think the rules we put down are as minimal as they get.
 
"Some towns have more pressure on the housing market and loss of potential long-term units. … What we wanted to do is head off that difficult situation."
 
Two key provisions of the Planning Board draft: operators of short-term rentals must live in town for at least 60 days per year, and the short-term rentals cannot be rented for more than 150 days per year.
 
The drafters believed those two provisions, in tandem, provide the flexibility for residents and part-year residents to derive income from their properties while discouraging investors from buying up housing stock and putting it into short-term rentals.
 
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley started Monday's conversation by saying that he hoped the panel could conclude its work on a short-term rental bylaw proposal by the end of February to keep it on track for May's annual town meeting.
 
His colleagues were less confident.
 
"I've followed the North Adams discussion and the Great Barrington discussion," Andy Hogeland said. "I think there are more issues than can be addressed in 60 days."
 
Jane Patton agreed and said the board would need to do more research to find out the extent to which short-term rentals are actually impacting the town's housing market. She also said the board needs to do more comprehensive outreach to current residents who operate short-term rentals to learn what the impact would be of the proposed regulations.
 
According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue's website, as of Tuesday morning there were 133 registered short-term rentals in the town. The most recent number for total housing units, based on the 2010 Census, was 2,805 according to the Department of Housing and Community Development's website.
 
Using those numbers, 4.7 percent of the town's housing stock is available in short-term rentals.
 
All short-term rental proprietors in the commonwealth are required to register with the DOR. Anyone who rents a unit for more than 14 days in a calendar year is required to collect the state's lodging tax.
 
Proponents of short-term rentals say they benefit the town by providing additional income to residents who need the revenue to stay in their home. And the Airbnb and Vrbo rentals provide needed hospitality space during peak periods, like Williams College commencement and the Solid Sound festival at nearby Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
 
Select Board members Jeff Johnson and Randy Fippinger each noted on Monday that there are quality of life issues to short-term rentals in addition to any impact on the availability of year-round housing in the town.
 
"The other side is: How do the neighbors feel?" Fippinger said. "If there are transients in the neighborhood, do they feel safe? How does it impact their way of life?"
 
"I know what it's like to live right next door to a short-term rental," Johnson said. "There's the good, the bad and the ugly that comes with it. If we don't address this, at some point, it's going to address us.
 
"I do agree with [Patton] that there are so many different areas to consider. … It's important that we look at it and get into the numbers."
 
In other business on Monday, the Select Board discussed potential changes for the annual town meeting and approved a conservation restriction for 15 acres on Hancock Road currently owned by Anne Tiffany, who plans to donate the property to the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation after the CR gets final sign-off from the state.
 
"This property ranks exceptionally high for many conservation values, including areas designated as BioMap 2 Core Habitat as well as Critical Natural Landscape and additional areas designated as Priority Habitat and Estimated Habitat as defined by [Mass Wildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program]," Adam Galambos of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council told the Select Board. "In addition, about 2,000 feet of the Green River flows along the southeastern boundary of this property, which is designated as a cold waters fishery resource.
 
"The property is bounded on either side by conservation land, as well. So this 15-acre parcel, although small relative to other parcels, provides a big impact to protect these resources."
 
The board voted unanimously to approve the conservation restriction and conveyed its thanks to Tiffany, who has spent years discussing the land transfer with WRLF and BNRC.
 
Town Manager Bob Menicocci began a discussion about the fiscal 2024 budget that he will present to the Select Board and Finance Committee in January. The first-year administrator said it will be a challenging year given the 10 percent inflation the town is seeing in some material costs and needed increases in salaries.
 
An additional stress on the FY24 budget: the town's liability for $1.3 million in overruns for the $5.3 million recreation trail project funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Menicocci Monday said the town continues to negotiate with the state about splitting the cost of the overruns.
 
"The overage seems like a great thing to do shared responsibility on," he said.
 
Menicocci also reported that he planned to interview six candidates for the police chief position on Wednesday. A group of community members have volunteered to sit in on the interviews and provide Menicocci with feedback. If things go really well, he could be in position to offer the position pending reference checks as early as Wednesday afternoon, Menicocci said.

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Summer Street Residents Make Case to Williamstown Planning Board

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Neighbors of a proposed subdivision off Summer Street last week asked the Planning Board to take a critical look at the project, which the residents say is out of scale to the neighborhood.
 
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity was at Town Hall last Tuesday to present to the planners a preliminary plan to build five houses on a 1.75 acre lot currently owned by town's Affordable Housing Trust.
 
The subdivision includes the construction of a road from Summer Street onto the property to provide access to five new building lots of about a quarter-acre apiece.
 
Several residents addressed the board from the floor of the meeting to share their objections to the proposed subdivision.
 
"I support the mission of Habitat," Summer Street resident Christopher Bolton told the board. "There's been a lot of concern in the neighborhood. We had a neighborhood meeting [Monday] night, and about half the houses were represented.
 
"I'm impressed with the generosity of my neighbors wanting to contribute to help with the housing crisis in the town and enthusiastic about a Habitat house on that property or maybe two or even three, if that's the plan. … What I've heard is a lot of concern in the neighborhood about the scale of the development, that in a very small neighborhood of 23 houses, five houses, close together on a plot like this will change the character of the neighborhood dramatically."
 
Last week's presentation from NBHFH was just the beginning of a process that ultimately would include a definitive subdivision plan for an up or down vote from the board.
 
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