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Airbnb trend has Selectboard asking questions

DUMMERSTON—A new industry can pose challenges for a municipality. Do existing laws cover it? Which entities are responsible for overseeing safety, business transactions, and permitting or licensing?

Lately, Dummerston officials are asking these questions in response to a resident’s concern with short-term rentals — also called “Airbnb’s” after the website that brought the concept into common use.

Most such rentals are rooms or apartments in private homes — or are outbuildings or entire homes — that visitors rent on a short-term basis: a day, a weekend, a week or two. The listings and transactions occur on Airbnb.com or similar sites that list residences or rooms for short-term rental. Sometimes an established bed-and-breakfast will use such sites to bring in guests, but most are private, unlicensed homes.

As far as the town and state are concerned, is such a rental a hotel, an inn, or a bed-and-breakfast? Or is it an entirely new category of business?

Regardless of which designation officials assign to such rentals, their proprietors are definitely doing business, and the Selectboard and other public officials believe the state — and towns — have an interest in regulating them to ensure safety and a level playing field for guest houses that are licensed and collect Vermont’s rooms and meals tax.

At the May 10 regular Selectboard meeting, the Board reviewed and approved a draft letter written by Zoning Administrator Roger Jasaitis. The letter will go to residents whose properties are listed on Airbnb.com or other websites for short-term rentals — which in this case means rentals for fewer than 30 consecutive days.

The Selectboard and meeting attendees discussed the issue and tried to define some parameters. Resident Carrie Towle requested more clarification, and more opportunity for public comment.

According to Jasaitis’s draft letter, those who will receive the letter — provided they are, in fact, offering short-term property rentals — must apply for a conditional use permit from the Development Review Board.

Board Chair Zeke Goodband explained that these properties fall under the purview of the zoning bylaws — “Section 121 Unspecified Use” — because the properties are engaged in commercial transactions. When the zoning bylaws were last revised, in late 2015, the Planning Commission wasn’t aware of the proliferation of such short-term rentals, “so they couldn’t write them into the bylaws,” Goodband said.

“What if you rent your place for six months [through a website]? Is that short-term or long-term,” asked Selectboard member Jerelyn Wilson, adding, “I think we need to be clear about that.”

Goodband said he hopes the Planning Commission can clear that up.

“The people this [letter] goes to should be made aware they also have to contact the state fire marshal,” said Board Vice-Chair Steve Glabach.

Glabach said he and other town officials have discussed the matter with officials from the Division of Fire Safety, “and they’re very concerned about people staying overnight in houses that may not have been inspected by the fire marshal and possibly the state electrical inspector.”

The presence of Airbnbs “has caused some friction on West Street,” said Goodband. He told The Commons, “I believe this goes back a year and came to our attention from a resident’s complaint.”

At the May 10 meeting, Goodband told his colleagues sending Jasaitis’ letter will at least start the conversation on a municipal level, even if the Selectboard doesn’t currently have all the answers.

“I think we’ll hear back [from people] and get some useful information,” said Goodband. “The intent is to bring these businesses under some formal review by the DRB.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #410 (Wednesday, May 31, 2017).

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