Select Board Chair cites ‘heated rhetoric’

Proposed short-term rental ordinance will not appear on Rockport’s June ballot

Tue, 02/09/2021 - 5:00pm

    In a Feb. 8 vote, members of the Rockport Select Board decided that a proposed ordinance that would regulate short term rentals in the municipality will not not appear on the June Town Meeting ballot as originally intended. 

    Select Board Chair Debra Hall, who worked to draft the proposed ordinance with Vice Chair Denise Kennedy-Munger, said that although she felt that the voices of the community could be best represented if the ordinance were put to a public vote, she felt that it best that the board table the ordinance for the time being.

    “We have gotten to a point where the rhetoric and the temperature on this issue is so hot that I think it’s in the best interest of the town to cool the temperature down, so I support tabling [the ordinance]” said Hall at the meeting.

    If approved by voters, the ordinance would limit the number of short-term rentals (STR) allowable in particular zoning districts throughout Rockport, require each homeowner wishing to rent out their property to register with the town Code Enforcement Officer each year and be willing to have their property inspected by the Code Enforcement Officer and the Fire Chief. 

    Hall and Kennedy-Munger wrote the draft with the assistance of Bob Hall, who sits on the Ordinance Review Committee, and the town’s legal counsel, Phil Saucier; a third version of the ordinance was presented to the Select Board last month.

    At the outset of a discussion during the Feb. 8 meeting regarding potential articles to appear on the June Town Meeting warrant, Kennedy-Munger made a motion that the STR ordinance should not appear on the June ballot. She said her decision was the result of further consideration of the regulations as well as feedback from community members on the issue.

    “It’s become apparent to me that regulating short-term rentals is just not a priority for our town residents at this time. Whether that’s due to the pandemic... I’m on the Select Board to serve the town’s residents, and for that reason I move that we table the short-term rental regulation,” said Kennedy-Munger.

    The motion was immediately seconded by Hall.

    Over the past year, the proposed ordinance had become a divisive topic in the community, as members of the public expressed through ZOOM meetings and workshops questioned the impetus and apparent need for the regulations, as well as how the proposed ordinance could potentially effect their sources of income. Another remote public workshop on the ordinance had been scheduled for next week.

    “We’ve had more workshops on this than anything else since I’ve been on the Select Board, and we’ve tried to be transparent by putting all of the comments on either side of the STR issue on the town website,” said Hall, adding that the majority of residents who favored the proposed regulations did not speak out publicly.

    “The majority of residents who do support some kind of regulation have not willing to publicly come forward for the most part, and I don’t criticize them, I don’t think we should criticize them. Particularly because this public fray has been pretty heated and there has been a small minority of residents who have engaged in personal attacks and rhetoric which frankly I think is unfitting of civil discourse,” said Hall.

    Select Board member Jeff Hamilton said that STRs have been a contemporary subject nationwide as well as in neighboring communities, some of which have pursued enacting regulations on the businesses. However, Hamilton said that it was apparent to him at the board’s Jan. 25 meeting that there was not a great deal of support for the proposed ordinance.

    “The commentary and feedback from either side of the issue has come from less than 30 people – less than one percent of the voting population in a town of over 3,100 voters. Some of those comments even came from non-residents. The majority of that feedback came from people who own STRs or have a financial interest or a personal stake they perceive might be at risk,” said Hamilton. 

    He said that if the ordinance were not placed on the June ballot it would be denying the town’s voting population their opportunity to weigh-in on the measure.

    Selectman Mark Kelley said that he hoped that the board members would give as much discussion to other proposed articles on the June ballot as was being given to the STR ordinance, giving the example of the potential use or development of the former Rockport Elementary School (RES) site on West Street. He suggested that the board could decide whether or not to include the ordinance on the ballot at a later date.

    “I feel like the pandemic has hampered our ability to really discuss this as a community and listen to each other respectfully. It’s so much easier to say things through letters, through e-mails, and if you’re in a public forum with each other I think the level of discourse is a much healthier for our community,” said Kennedy-Munger.

    Select Board member Michelle Hannan said that although it was proactive of the board to consider a STR ordinance, she favored tabling it for the time being.

    The board voted 4-1 to table the ordinance and that it not appear on the June ballot; Hamilton opposed the motion.