CONWAY — Selectmen and the town manager remained tight-lipped about what comes next with short-term rental saga which made an abrupt turn last week when voters refused to legalize hundreds of short-tern rentals operating in residential zones.
Meanwhile, a University of New Hampshire hospitality professor says the town will lose millions of dollars in economic activity on a monthly basis.
Several ordinances seeking to allow and regulate such rentals failed at the town polls on April 13. At present there are about 500 short-term rental properties, which is down from pre-pandemic estimates of 600 to 800.
On Tuesday, selectmen met in non-public session with attorney Peter Malia of Hastings Malia of Fryeburg, Maine, to discuss how to move forward.
On Wednesday, Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes said the board had authorized him to issue the following brief statement:
“The selectmen agreed to begin the enforcement process which in Conway begins with a notice to the property owners regarding the violations.”
According to chairman David Weathers, who spoke to the Sun on Wednesday, Holmes will be the spokesman for the town on the short-term rental subject.
The Sun pressed Weathers Thursday by asking for his thoughts on the real estate market.
“We are not commenting, goodbye,” said Weathers.
The Sun reached out to the other board members as well. Carl Thibodeau, who has served on town short-term rental committees, also said Thursday by email he had no comment.
Thibodeau prior to the vote, has been a strong proponent of regulating but not eliminating short-term rentals.
Selectman John Colbath, reached by phone, said he had no comment as did Selectman Steve Porter.
Holmes said Wednesday and Thursday that at this time what he could say about the situation is limited to the one statement and he would not reveal anything from the nonpublic session with Malia.
Selectmen will meet again with Malia next Tuesday.
Town officials in late 2019 decided that short-term rentals were not a “permitted use” in the residential zone but said they would hold off enforcement until regulations could be put into place in 2021. However, the proposed articles that would allow licensed short-term rentals to operate failed at the polls.
Before the vote, officials said should the articles be defeated the town would be forced to enforce an ordinance that does not currently allow non-owner occupied short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. Selectmen would send warning letters, followed by cease-and-desist orders.
The town zoning ordinances discuss criminal and civil fines for violations.
The fine schedule is laid out in RSA 676:17. The state law says the penalties are “$275 for the first offense, and $550 for subsequent offenses, for each day that such violation is found to continue after the conviction date or after the date on which the violator receives written notice from the municipality that the violator is in violation, whichever is earlier. Each day that a violation continues shall be a separate offense.”
The town may also recover attorney fees if it wins in court.
The Sun had questions about the timing and details of the impending notices and possible cease-and-desist orders but they will apparently go unanswered until at least the next selectmen’s meeting.
Selectmen’s meetings have been live-streamed on Facebook since the pandemic beganbut people may also attend in person or watch on Valley Vision and Zoom.
Town zoning ordinances are subject to change every town meeting season.
In November, Conway Village Fire Chief Steven Solomon, who chaired a committee that recommended the regulatory path that the selectmen took to town meeting, warned that if the articles failed, the board would have to enforce zoning.
“Ignoring the issue and just not doing anything jeopardizes zoning in general,” said Solomon.
The town last year contracted with a company called Host Compliance to inventory short-term term rentals. The contract runs until the fall.
Selectmen had proposed spending $50,000 to buy a higher suite of services, to include a complaint hotline, but that article failed.
When the contract ends, the town will apparently be on its own for at least the next year to figure out who if anyone is still operating short-term rentals. During the town meeting process next year voters could be offered another crack at the town’s purchasing short-term rental monitoring services.
Meanwhile, Daniel E. Innis, professor of marketing and hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire, told the Sun the vote will have “huge” economic consequences in the local economy particularly on low-wage hospitality workers. However, hotels will likely benefit as their competition from short-term rentals will diminish.
The Sun told Innis that short-term rental operator Scott Kudrick estimated that the town is losing the equivalent of 18 100-room hotels. He said if there are 600 homes that can’t rent and have an average of three bedrooms and they would have an average of two people per room.
Innis extrapolated on Kudrick’s numbers, using what he said are conservative numbers. If each house has three rooms then there are 1,800 rooms. If there are two people in the room and they each spend $50 in town per day (not counting their rent) that’s $5.4 million per month. The rental money itself may or may not stay in town depending on whether the short-term rental operator is local or not.
“Every time you bring in additional people, you’re providing a large boost to the local economy,” said Innis. “So that’s going to go away. And I think, you know, apparently the communities are OK with that or, they don’t understand. I mean, given the numbers, you sent in your email, that’s a lot of people.”