Members of the Rockport Select Board met March 8 and remained undecided as to whether or not an ordinance regulating short-term rentals in the municipality would be placed as a warrant article on the Town Meeting ballot in June.
Exactly one month prior, at a Feb. 8 meeting, the board voted 4 to 1 that the proposed ordinance would not not appear on the June ballot as originally intended, with board member Jeff Hamilton opposing.
At that meeting, Select Board Chair Debra Hall and board member Denise Kennedy-Munger – both of whom had created the draft ordinance with Ordinance Review Committee member Bob Hall – spoke in favor of “tabling” the draft ordinance from upcoming discussions.
“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, on Feb. 8.
“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 that meeting.
Since then, a citizen petition was circulated and signatures were gathered from Rockport residents requesting the Select Board reconsider their decision and that the ordinance appear on the June ballot. The petition, which former Selectman Doug Cole was involved with circulating, received 34 signatures when it was returned to the Rockport Town Office.
Town Manager Bill Post said that a petition would need to receive 10 percent of the number of registered voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election, last November, to automatically find placement on the Town Meeting warrant. The discussion on March 8 to revisit placing the ordinance, or a version of it, on the June ballot was opened by board member Hamilton.
Hamilton referenced the citizen petition, as well as an ordinance prohibiting fireworks in Rockport, which was brought before the Select Board by one resident in 2019 and ultimately passed as a warrant article in 2020.
“We had one person essentially do a full push for a fireworks ordinance in Rockport, get some signatures and it motivated us to take action with an ordinance developed and subsequent approval. My thought is that we, between now and our next [March 22] meeting, develop language that we would look at to be included as an article for a vote if we so wanted one, and at that point we could vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if a survey type question goes on the June ballot,” said Hamilton.
Post said that in addition to not containing a sufficient number of signatures from registered voters, the citizen petition did contain specific language or information about circulators required for such a document to force an ordinance onto the ballot.
The discussion that followed focused on whether the board place on the June town warrant a nonbinding referendum asking town voters if they want to pursue crafting a short term rental ordinance, or not.
“I think the board always has the discretion to put an article on the ballot, and so I think that while there was nothing binding or forcing us to put this on the ballot...it seems to me that we’re in a perfect scenario where we really ought to because clearly we have people on either side of this question. I look at this as being in essence nothing more than a survey,” said Hall.
“It does seem like an efficient way, and that the Select Board is responding to our voters’ wishes,” said Kennedy-Munger, who referred to a lack of public forums or in-person discussions on the subject as the result of the pandemic.
Selectman Mark Kelley reminded the board of comments he had made previously when he advocated that they wait until the summer to hopefully be able to have public meetings on the ordinance, and then ultimately have a final version of the document ready to appear on the Nov. 2021 ballot.
“We wouldn’t be doing this today if we had at least waited until November, we could have had public conversations in person hopefully and everybody would have been appeased, and then we could have put it on the November ballot,” said Kelley.
Hamilton and Hall both said that a June vote on the issue would quantify how Rockport voters felt about short-term regulations one way or the other, and would potentially allow the Select Board to invest their time and interests elsewhere if the ordinance didn’t receive support. Board member Michelle Hannan referenced the process of creating the fireworks ordinance, and asked what the next steps for a short-term rental ordinance and regulation of it be should a warrant question pass in June.
“If the vote is a ‘yes’ vote to go ahead and develop an ordinance, then we go through the ordinance development procedure and take what we have as a draft and go through the same things [Kelley] was talking about with public comment and the whole rest of the formal ordinance process that we haven’t been through yet and the ordinance gets developed by some date in August and then it’s put on the ballot for November,” said Hamilton.
“And to the contrary, you may well get a vote that says ‘no, we don’t want this,’ and then guess what, the Select Board gets to focus on other things and they get to say who the people who want [short-term rental regulations] ‘sorry, but you seem to truly be in the minority,’ and the Select Board does something else,” said Hall.
Hamilton proposed that a ‘survey-type’ warrant article pertaining to short-term rentals be drafted by Post and brought before the board at their next meeting on March 22 for possible discussion, modification or approval. Kelley and Post warned that postponing the topic to an April 8 meeting meant any decision would fall too closely to the deadline for June warrant articles. The board agreed that language for a warrant article would be placed as an agenda item at their next meeting.
“This is not about the issue of whether short-term rentals are good or bad, all it simply is is finding out what voters want. And I don’t think anybody’s going to convince me that surveying our voters is not a good thing,” said Hall.
The next meeting of the Rockport Select Board will be held Monday, March 22 at 5:30 p.m.