The letter to the editor by Mark Hounsell in the Sun is representative of the breakdown in civility between a vocal portion of locals and second homeowners who have enjoyed North Conway for decades.
Let’s dissect this letter, but before doing so, let’s examine Mr. Hounsell’s statement on his LinkedIn page under the heading “About.”
"I do not seek justice. I endeavor to give justice. My mantra is that 'I shall endeavor to go about doing good and helping those who are oppressed.'"
One does not give justice. Courts provide justice and one seeks justice in them when one is harmed by others. It is fine to go about doing good and helping those who are oppressed; however, that has nothing whatsoever to do with justice.
In the first paragraph of his letter, Mr. Hounsell insults the selectmen for choosing to follow the judicial route to determine the facts before the town acts. This is simple prudence and is conserving the funds that the town will inevitably have to pay out if it acts in an illegal manner.
Hounsell’s claim that there are “hordes of STR opportunists” is pathetic hyperbole. Short-term rentals have been an ongoing residential use of property in Conway for many decades. Hounsell seems to think that local residents can simply vote on something and make a legal use of property an illegal use overnight. Property rights exist in this nation and they cannot be trampled by the majority whether they hold a vote or not.
That is why the most sensible path is to ask a court to make a determination on whether something is legal when you go about changing a local zoning ordinance or changing enforcement after decades of allowing a practice. Apparently, an existing ordinance limits STRs to owner-occupied homes according to some, but it has not been enforced for decades, if ever. There are arguments about “transient” and “semi-transient” use and not having kitchens versus “residential” units that have kitchens.
Given the lack of consensus on what these ordinances mean and the fact that Conway has allowed people to use homes for the purpose of STRs for decades, there is a strong legal argument that people who purchased their homes while STRs were being actively allowed by the town should all be grandfathered in, even if the ordinance can be enforced.
In such a case, the enforcement should only be against new purchasers of homes for STR purposes. The town is on very shaky legal ground at best as its position would imply that I can rent out my condo for six months at a time but not for six nights. What is the difference when the use is the same? I am renting out property that I own for residential purposes in both cases.
There are serious questions about whether such an ordinance restricting such use to only owner-occupied homes is even constitutional. This is a question for our legal system to determine what the law actually is in this particular case.
Mr. Hounsell goes on to berate the selectmen for not enforcing the law and for bowing to “out-of-towners” by not immediately enforcing what he considers to be the law. This is the key problem with Hounsell’s approach: He is a petty tyrant who thinks he can give justice rather than follow established means for addressing disputes through our legal system.
He gives the game up in his long run-on sentence when he acknowledges that in the end “by passing their responsibilities to a slow moving court process who (sic) will eventually issue a ruling that will in effect destroy the serenity of families and neighborhoods.” Hounsell does not want the selectmen to follow the legal route and actually seek justice because he believes the court will rule against the town.
In Conway, 47 percent of the homes are second homes, which means the owners currently have no right to vote in town elections. We second homeowners are, in the vast majority of cases, responsible homeowners who do not negatively impact the quality of life for our neighbors. We have property rights that full-time residents cannot simply trample at will. The zealots on this STR issue are tearing apart the fabric that holds a tourist town together.
The selectmen and Town Manager Tom Holmes are following a path that will provide definitive answers that can be appealed to the N.H. Supreme Court if people do not agree with the outcome. That is not weak-kneed capitulation; it is following the rule of law.
A far better path for addressing the issues that exist in a minority of STRs is effective regulations and sanctions for not following them. But the petty tyrant is not interested in finding a solution that respects everyone's rights.
John L. Standring lives in Exeter and owns a condo in Conway.