CONWAY — The town manager says he was reversed by the state when he tried to enforce the ban on short-term rentals on a person from out of state.
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Chris Sununu in early April issued an emergency order stating that lodging establishments and short-term rentals had to cease non-essential bookings immediately.
The State Reopening Task Force has recommended having the lodging establishments and short-term rentals reopen today, but Sununu had not approved that proposal as of press time.
Town Manager Tom Holmes told selectmen Tuesday that he’s getting a number of complaints about short-term rentals. He said the complaints tend to be about things like cars with Massachusetts license plates being parked in driveways of rental homes.
“It’s just impossible to enforce. I just can’t get anything going on it,” said Holmes.
He said on May 15, a Massachusetts woman asked about making a rental arrangement in town. Holmes denied the request.
“She had a very compelling and heartbreaking story, but she was from Massachusetts, and she called the governor’s office and they OK’d it,” said Holmes. “They overrode my decision. And that’s going to be the case. I’m not going to be working 24/7 trying to enforce rules that they won’t enforce.”
Holmes told the Sun on Thursday that the woman said that water damage in her house was being fixed and that her child has a medical condition. She said she couldn’t afford any rentals in Massachusetts.
Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt said his office had “no record” of the incident Holmes described.
Vihnstadt said the governor’s office “as a practice, with extremely rare exceptions, would not verbally issue exceptions to the governor’s executive orders.”
Asked about Vihstadt’s comment, Holmes said Benoit Lamontagne of the state’s Division of Economic Development told the woman she had permission. The woman gave that permission to the landlord who sent it to Holmes. Lamontagne told the Sun that he was merely passing along a decision that was made by Commissioner of Economic Development Taylor Caswell.
“I don’t make decisions,” said Lamontagne, who said he was assisting with communications.
The Sun brought up short-term rentals again later in the meeting and asked about the town getting the short-term rental committee going again.
Holmes said he plans to get the committee up and running soon.
The committee is tasked with drafting short-term rental regulations for the 2021 town ballot. The group had a deadline of Aug. 1 but the committee became inactive because of the pandemic, throwing off its timetable.
“The No. 1 issues we had in town, since the governor’s order to stop lodging industry rentals has been people defying his order and renting short term,” said Holmes adding the town is keeping a log of all the complaints it has received.
“I think whatever regulations we put into place, we’re going to have some pretty sharp teeth because what happened in this last month or so is that people who decided to defy the governor’s orders put this entire community at risk,” said Holmes.
Selectman Steve Porter said he was pleased residents voted May 12 to support an article that called for spending $25,000 on an inventory of short-term rental units in the town.
“Even people that have been employed by these short-term rentals have expressed their extreme disgust at how these property owners defied these orders,” Porter said.
Conway police Lt. Chris Mattei said Thursday if police receive a complaint from a concerned citizen regarding an occupied short-term rental they send an officer to the residence to speak with the occupants to determine whether or not the person(s) involved fall under the definition of an essential worker or meet the criteria to be classified as part of the “vulnerable population” as defined by the Governor’s Order 27.
The officer does not have the authority to take action against the short-term tenants, Mattei said.
“The information gathered is passed on to the town manager, and if it is found that the property has been rented in violation of the governor’s order, the town manager will contact the homeowner/landlord at that time,” Mattei said. “We have not experienced many short-term rental homes within the town of Conway that have been found to be in violation of the order.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when the order was initially enacted by the governor, the town had to contact a few owners. Once the order was explained and the terms clarified, the owners were cooperative and immediately shut down their properties.”
During the meeting, Recreation Director John Eastman asked what should be done about the beach at Conway Lake. He predicted it would be busy on Memorial Day Weekend.
But Holmes said the town lacks the staff necessary to shut down the beach effectively.
“The experience of us trying to enforce or track down complaints for people violating governor’s orders for short-term rentals has been horrendous,” said Holmes. “We’re running around chasing that tail.”
He suggested just putting up signage about COVID-19 and social distancing.
Selectman Mary Carey Seavey said the beach is so small that “you would be lucky” to have enough space for four groups of people spaced appropriately.
The beach will be open but the town asks people to social distance and be courteous. Selectmen agreed to reopen the town’s tennis and pickleball courts but basketball courts are to remain closed. “You can’t play basketball and keep 6 feet away,” said Chairman David Weathers, who later said he would keep First Bridge open because there’s enough room for socially distancing.
Meanwhile, in Bartlett, Police Chief Chris Keaton said the police there have been issuing verbal warnings to three or four property owners who are believed to be in violation.
Keaton, who is taking some time off, said that when he gets back to work, he will be issuing a letter to a property owner police believe has had two violations. The Attorney General’s Office will be copied if the renting continues. “We are dealing with it as best we can,” said Keaton. “We are trying to follow all the rules ... We are just using common sense and asking the people not to rent their properties until the state allows it.”