CONWAY — Selectmen have decided they will begin the enforcement process against hundreds of short-term rental owners operating in the residential zones of the town.
Several ordinances seeking to allow and regulate such rentals failed at the town polls on April 13.
On Tuesday, selectmen met in non-public session with attorney Peter Malia of Hastings Malia in 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."
Holmes added that selectmen hope to have another non-public session with Malia next Tuesday. He did not say when notices would be sent.
There are about 530 short-term rentals in Conway, which is down from pre-pandemic estimates of around 800. Holmes said that a few years ago, the town of Conway had the largest short-term rental market in the state of New Hampshire.
At this year's Town Meeting voting, selectmen's Article 3, which asked to allow short-term rentals in any zone where a single-family home is permitted, failed 1,015-492.
Voters also rejected Article 2 on the warrant, which provided a definition for short-term rentals, 720-674.
However, Article 6, allowing selectmen to regulate and license short-term rentals, passed 776-722.
Article 21, which would establish a trust fund to pay for enforcement, failed with 773 voting no, 706 voting yes. Article 22, which asked to seed the trust fund with $50,000, failed 826 (no) to 655 (yes).
However, the noise ordinance (Article 23) passed overwhelmingly, 1,298-188 (see related story). This new ordinance would address revelers as well as noisy vehicles and machinery.
Conway Village resident Mark Hounsell told the board Tuesday that they must follow the will of the voters who only gave the board one option. Hounsell spoke during public comment period of the meeting before the selectmen went into non-public session to speak with attorney Malia.
Hounsell over the years has served as a selectman, state senator, a county commissioner and most recently a member of the Conway School Board.
"The one option," Hounsell told the board, "is to start immediately issuing cease-and-desist citations for violations of operating a business enterprise in a residential zone," said Hounsell.
"Some may find it inconvenient. But until it changes, it is the law. The people rejected any change to that."
Hounsell acknowledged there will be lawsuits if the selectmen follow his advice.
"You initiate enforcement of the law, someone doesn't like it, they have the right to sue," said Hounsell. "You have the duty to defend. That's not a bad thing. It's an expensive thing. I'm sure."
Hounsell asked the selectmen to listen to Malia on how to accomplish what they must do, which is enforce the town's ordinances. He said selectmen shouldn't "pass the buck" by asking Malia to determine their course forward.
"Thank you again for everything — you do you do an excellent job," added Hounsell. "Disagreeing isn't disliking, you know, I love you all dearly."
The Sun asked the New Hampshire Association of Realtors last week about Conway's recent vote.
"Reasonable regulations are entirely appropriate as long as they are fairly and uniformly enforced," said President Jim Lee. "However, we do not believe that municipalities have the legal authority to simply ban an owner from renting out his or her residential property. The stakes are high, as New Hampshire brings in tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue due to vacation rentals."
Josh Brustin, owner/broker at Pinkham Real Estate, told the Sun: "My hope is that the selectmen don't see the 'no' vote as a referendum for an all-out ban but instead recognize that as a community, we need to come together and seriously consider what the future should look like in Conway.
"We must address the lack of affordable housing and the subsequent shortage of employees," Brustin continued. "We must consider the evolution of the sharing economy (short-term rentals) and how to manage it to ensure balance in our neighborhoods.
"We must be careful not to treat second homeowners, who contribute many tax dollars while putting minimal pressure on our infrastructure, like second-class citizens," he said.
"Only when we are willing to come up with and employ global solutions to manage growth will Conway find the balance we all are seeking."
Short-term rental operator Scott Kudrick told the Sun that the impact to tourism from the vote would be similar to shutting down 18 100-room hotels.
"The average house has three bedrooms — and 600 homes can no longer rent, that is 1,800 bedrooms with an average two people per bedroom," he said.
He said the ripple effects will be felt in the local economy.
"I spoke to several cleaners and contractors that stand to lose their livelihood and had no idea such a vote was taking place and the potential ramifications," said Kudrick.
What led to the vote began in August 2019, when Birch Hill resident Ray Shakir called for a community-wide discussion of short-term rentals because he said the rentals were causing issues in his neighborhood.
On Wednesday, Shakir told the Sun: "The internet brought the practice from the local paper and word of mouth to international prominence; therefore, affording a major profit motive and exposing, to what formally was mostly used by relatives, friends and references, to the entire planet; hence, sacrificing among other things neighborhood tranquility.
"Despite the undeniable advantages to the town, such as increased commerce etc., the practice is completely illegal and an insult to full-timers," said Shakir.