CONWAY — A town committee seeking to address issue of short-term rentals will be working to suggest zoning changes that would be presented to voters on April's ballot.
On Wednesday, the committee discussed that possible changes are definitions of short-term rentals and licensing requirements, and if the state law changes, perhaps fines for nuisance households.
The short-term rental issue heated up Aug. 20 after North Conway resident/planning board member Ray Shakir called on selectmen to take action about what he called a big problem in his neighborhood.
At their meeting Oct. 8, selectmen eventually decided the committee would be made up of Holmes, Selectman Steve Porter, Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon and Carl Thibodeau.
When the committee met Oct. 18, Holmes was voted chairman. The committee is advisory and will be making recommendations on regulations to the selectmen and the planning board.
The committee Wednesday reviewed legal opinions from town attorney Peter Malia of Hastings Malia PA in Fryeburg, Maine, and Natch Greyes of the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
Both lawyers, in written opinions, said that the town may regulate short-term rentals through zoning. They pointed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court case Working Stiff Partners, LLC v. City of Portsmouth.
Malia said through zoning, the town could create geographic, quantitative and operational restrictions on short-term rentals.
The committee members seemed to gravitate toward the latter which could include occupancy restrictions.
"If you've got a three-bedroom home and you're packing 15-18 people in there, you have a life-safety issue," Thibodeau said.
The committee is also concerned about the potential for septic system failures caused by over crowding, people parked illegally in the street and disruptive house parties.
Solomon said the town needs to find the "unhappy medium" between status quo, which is doing nothing, and banning them all. He sees that as a zoning amendment.He suggested a zoning change that would allow short-term rental homes built for seven people or less to be treated like a single-family home.
"I don't think the smaller short-term rentals are causing the noise complaints, and the trash complaints and the parking complaints and things like that," said Solomon. "If it's eight or more people, we should look at what are we going to call these things; are they lodging and rooming, hotel dormitory? Do they only belong in the commercial districts? Do they need to be on water and sewer?"
When Holmes suggested that the term "bedroom" has to be defined as part of the occupancy regulation, Porter replied at some short-term rentals guests sleep in the living rooms.
Solomon suggested he would just make the regulation based on number of people per unit.
"It's when you have the larger number of people you have all these other issues," Solomon said.
When Thibodeau brought up the legality of guests sleeping in the basement, Solomon said that's generally allowed when there are two means of egress or there are sprinklers in the basement.
Scott Kudrick, of New Hampshire Mountain Rentals, urged the committee to be careful when making a limit based on bedrooms. He said its common scenario is that two adult couples with children will get a short-term rental together.
"If the committee were to say we are only going to allow two people per bedroom that hurts a lot of people who travel to the area with kids," said Kudrick.
Later in the meeting, Kudrick said if regulations were too strict, families that have owned their vacation properties for many years would have to sell because they need some rental income to make having a second home affordable.
"It's been something that's happened for generations," said Kudrick. "This is a big thing ... I sense a general attitude in the community that speaks at this meeting towards shutting them down and there's a silent majority out there that can't be at these meetings."
At another point in the meeting, Thibodeau said most people don't want to ban short-term rentals entirely.
Josh Brustin of Pinkham Real Estate encouraged the committee to look for ideas from other parts of the country, like Sonoma County, Calif., for how to properly regulate short-term rentals.
Holmes said as a town, the selectmen don't even have the same regulatory powers as a New Hampshire city. He said that's been "frustrating."
Shakir spoke about the importance of community. When you have a long-term neighbor, you have someone to turn to when there's a problem, such as when your lawnmower breaks down.
"If all you have around you is people who rent out short-term, you don't have a neighborhood, you have a hotel," said Shakir adding the atmosphere is less friendly. "These are strangers who come and go ... You don't have any personal pride in where you live."
Resident Tom Reed suggested that short-term rentals may not be permitted in the residential agricultural zone, and Solomon said he didn't think they would be permitted in that zone and the the village residential zones.
Reed wondered if having a short-term rental that he dubbed a "20 room hotel" next door would hurt his property value.
He said guests are puking on his neighbor's lawn.
Holmes said the revaluation shows that areas where short-term rentals are prevalent are seeing increasing values, such as side streets in North Conway.
"Your particular home may be impacted negatively by having a party house next door but everybody else in the neighborhood has more equity because people want to open up more party houses," Holmes said.
The town could also require each short-term rental property to have a local agent who could address problems in a timely fashion. Many such properties are owned by people who live out of state.
Maila added that Portsmouth's zoning ordinance excludes "transient occupancies" from the definition of a dwelling unit. If Conway had that provision then Conway could declare short-term rentals as commercial uses.
Greyes, in his opinion, also said the town could reclassify short-term rentals as commercial.
"That would give you a different tool set than is available if they are not reclassified, but it may cause further headaches which have not been thoroughly explored by the courts, yet," said Greyes.
Holmes said if the town declared short-term rentals commercial then it could ban them in residential zones or allow them with a special exception.
Committee members agreed money should be put in the town budget to pay a contractor to do what they say is the time-intensive work of determining where all the short-term rentals. They also agreed that the police department needs to weigh in on how to best regulate party houses — something that would become possible if state law changes.
Holmes said the police need to help develop a system that would keep track of complaints at party houses and such.
"We can't just send a letter from our lawyer saying we think you have been disorderly a lot," Holmes said.
The committee meets next on Nov. 21 at 3 p.m. at town hall.