Select Board votes 3-2 to place article on June warrant

Rockport voters to be asked if they favor new regulation of short-term rentals

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 9:00pm

    At the 2021 June Town Meeting, Rockport voters will be asked whether or not they favor the development of an ordinance which would regulate the operation of short-term rentals in the municipality. At a March 22 Select Board meeting, three of the five board members voted in favor of a motion which would place a non-binding warrant article to that effect on the municipal warrant.

    Select Board Chair Debra Hall and board members Denise Kennedy-Munger and Jeff Hamilton supported the motion; Mark Kelley and Michelle Hannan opposed placing a non-binding short-term rental (STR) question on the Town Meeting warrant.

    The language of the warrant article as it is expected to appear on the ballot follows:

    “Do you favor the development of a town ordinance that would regulate Short Term Rental (AirBnB, VBRO, etc.) activity in the Town of Rockport by requiring STR registration, requiring minimum safety standards be met, and that such ordinance be intended to strike a balance between the community’s quality of life while preserving the ability of STR owners to rent their properties?”

    Explanation: This is a non-binding question from the Select Board seeking your opinion only. If supported, the Town will draft an ordinance regulating short-term rentals as outlined above for a future vote. If not supported, the Town will not draft an ordinance for a future vote.”

    The language of the question was changed from it’s initial draft to end “preserving the ability of STR owners to rent their properties” rather than “preserving the ability of STR owners to generate income,” following a discussion by the board in which concern was raised that the phrase ‘generate income’ implied that income or personal gain was the sole intention of STR owners.

    “Not all STR owners are in it to generate an income,” said Hannan. “Many of them are doing it to keep their homes in Rockport, it’s a way to finance that and to keep homes for their children.... The way it sounds is that these STR owners are big business and they’re just in it to make money, and as a result they’re impacting our neighborhoods, and that’s just not true.”

    She said it was important that the board be aware that the non-binding question seeks to place restrictions on property owners.

    “Anything we do in that regard, we are putting restrictions and there are restrictions and it’s endemic to living in any municipality. But I understand what you’re saying about the ‘generating income,’ Michelle,” said Hall, who asked Hannan for suggestions in changing the language of the warrant article.

    Throughout the meeting, which was held remotely via ZOOM, members of the public raised a number of concerns or complaints with the prospect of including the non-binding article on the June ballot; none of the six citizens who commented spoke in favor of the warrant article. Their comments were typed in via a chat function on the livestream of the meeting.

    “This conversation is why we should table this now and talk in person when we can. So much is getting lost in translation. Do you all know how frustrating this is for us sitting here at a keyboard,” said Melissa MacCoole.

    “Bringing some STR's to code could be a large undertaking costing an owner thousands of dollars...Maybe someday the SB could put together a comprehensive paper which states why -any- STR ordinance is actually required. What are the problems with STR's, etc? I want data,” said E. Jones.

    “It is a compound question. It just needs to say ‘Should there be a STR ordinance drafted for a future vote. YES/NO?’” said Tiffany Ford.

    The decision to have Town Manager Bill Post craft possible language for a non-binding warrant article which would ‘survey’ residents on the subject of potential STR regulations was made at the Select Board’s last meeting on March 8. The non-binding question was an alternative to an earlier effort to have a written ordinance seeking to regulate STRs appear on the June ballot. 

    A draft ordinance seeking to regulate STRs in Rockport and require registration with the town and possible inspections by Code Enforcement and the Fire Department was created by Hall, Kennedy-Munger and Bob Hall of the Ordinance Review Committee, and revised three time but ultimately tabled following public input and resident concerns over the need for such an ordinance or circumstances which precipitated its very creation.

    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. 

    “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.

    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 received 34 signatures when it was returned to the Rockport Town Office.

    Prior to voting at the March 22 meeting, Kelley sought answers from Post regarding the requirements necessary through a citizen petition or other means to mandate that such a question appear on the ballot (Post had previously said that the petition was not considered valid due to its language and number of signatures.)

    The 4-1 vote in February to table the STR ordinance was followed by renewed interest in the topic and the decision two weeks ago to have language for a “survey-type” question related to short-term rentals prepared for the Monday night meeting.

    “We’re sending mixed messages, I think, around the town as to whether we’re caving a little bit to the ‘village,’ and I use that term because it’s often used by people who live outside of the village. I haven’t made up my mind how I’m going to vote yet, but this doesn’t help me, this very wordy ballot question,” said Kelley.

    “I respectfully suggest you’re confusing apples and oranges in the statement you’ve made because we are not retracting or change our mind. What happened is we decided not to put the actual ‘registration ordinance’ on the ballot....What we did decide is that it made sense to survey our voters and that’s what this does, it surveys our voters,” said Hall.

    “I know that the opponents or the short-term rental registration regulation are concerned that this is worded in a way that is going to be unfairly resulting in townspeople who really don’t want a STR regulation but are going to vote for this because of the way it’s worded, and I guess I don’t see that. I appreciate what they’re saying but I feel like it’s incumbent on us to give them some guidance as to what that might look like,” said Kennedy-Munger.

    The next meeting of the Rockport Select Board will be held Monday, April 12 at 5:30 p.m.