Hopkinton is revisiting the possibility of regulating short-term rentals after residents of Pike Street voiced concerns to the Zoning Advisory Committee about a property being rented out and used for weekend parties.
Regulating short-term rentals through websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo was first discussed about three years ago “on a very limited basis,” according to Mary Larson-Marlowe, a member of the Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) and the Planning Board, during a June ZAC meeting on the topic. She said that there wasn’t much of a perceived demand at the time, so it was not explored further.
At the June ZAC meeting, the complexity of the issue became apparent, as members debated whether there were zoning implications involved in regulating this type of rental or if it was something that would fall under a general bylaw.
A general bylaw proposal first would have to go before the Select Board and then, if passed, go before Town Meeting. Building inspection and licensing concerns arose when a particular address – 8 Pike Street – was mentioned.
Principal Planner John Gelcich explained that a general bylaw would be easier to pass because it would require a simple majority vote of 50 percent plus one vote of Town Meeting members. A zoning bylaw change would need a two-thirds vote to pass if zoning regulation were considered to be necessary.
“Any person who owns a house can lease it out,” Gelcich said. “There’s no definition as to how long the term of the lease has to be.”
He added that ownership generally is not regulated under zoning policy. If short-term rentals were regulated by zoning procedures, that could have a domino effect on how other types of rental properties are regulated.
“If short-term rentals were to be regulated under zoning, then all rentals would also have to fall under zoning,” Gelcich said. “And then at that point, I don’t even know how you would do that.”
The crux of the debate was what is considered to be a property’s use, he continued. The business aspect of a rental and the way in which a property is used would make it more of a licensing issue.
“Use is regulated by zoning, and short-term rental is not a use,” he explained. “You are taking a short-term rental of a residential use.”
If short-term rentals were considered to fall under zoning policy, monitoring of each short-term rental by a zoning enforcement officer “would be almost an impossible task,” he said.
Gelcich suggested a registration and licensing process that would have to be discussed before the Select Board. ZAC Chair Curtis Smithson concurred with Gelcich’s assessment.
“I believe that some sort of regulation in the town — perhaps just a registration — might be useful,” said Larson-Marlowe, adding that a structure would have to be set up to monitor the licensing and registration process for the town. She did not think that a total ban was warranted at this time.
Member John Coutinho added that short-term rental policy is “more of a monetary issue” because of taxes and income that is generated from a homeowner’s property.
ZAC member M. Elise Barrett Mihajloski said she is “generally in favor of Airbnbs.”
“I feel like Hopkinton is not really a town where people are going to come to party or be wild,” she said. “It’s probably going to be more like people’s family members who are looking for a place to stay.”
Her only concern was if people were to use short-term rentals as a means of having an address in town to register their children in the Hopkinton Public Schools. Gelcich said that would be a school or Department of Education issue because the school system “is notoriously and rightfully protective over student addresses.”
Brent McKenzie, who lives next door to the short-term rental property that spurred the discussion, disagreed. He and some other Pike Street residents brought the issue before ZAC to seek its counsel both in an April letter and at the June meeting.
“With all due respect, unless you live next door to one, you have no idea how it can disrupt a residential area,” he said. “If you can’t imagine anyone coming to Hopkinton and partying, come to 8 Pike Street on a Saturday night and you’ll see that that’s the case.”
He suggested implementing a 30-day minimum rental policy to discourage weekend partying, which he claimed was adopted in two nearby towns.
“It has been a very disruptive situation to our neighborhood,” added neighbor Ben Paharik, noting that he feared for the safety of his children. He added that the property was involved in what he called “sketchy situations relative to the people coming in.”
Barrett Mihajloski asked if renting a room would classify the property as a multifamily dwelling. Gelcich said the term “multifamily” is a zoning term. For example, a homeowner could have roommates that are not family members to share the housing costs, but that would not make the property a multifamily unit.
“I am not saying that this is a simple topic,” Gelcich added. “I think it’s very complicated and complex. That’s why I wanted to run it by ZAC.”
“I think there is a potential for there to be more and more short-term rental situations in Hopkinton as time goes on,” Larson-Marlowe added. “It’s reasonable to bring up the discussion in a wider way in the town. It’s so much better to get regulations in place before it becomes an avalanche.”