The short-term rental controversy represents the recurrence of a community disease that has festered internally for over four decades, since the tourism lobby set out to make that industry dominant locally. Now that the malignancy has metastasized, the effort to bring STRs into compliance with municipal ordinances may be too late for a positive outcome. Still, among those for whom Conway is the only home, how many are willing to give up the struggle?
At the town meeting of 1980, after a winter with little snow, Joe Sullivan made a pitch to give Mount Cranmore a tax exemption to compensate for the lack of business. In those days, tourism really only began north of Bowling Alley Hill, while Conway Village provided the manufacturing base. No one had ever proposed tax breaks for any of the wood-products industries in Conway when the economy left them reeling, or for the farmers in Center Conway and on the West Side when weather threatened them with financial ruin. Joe’s motion therefore failed, but he would probably not have even offered it if lodging and recreation interests were not already finding common cause with second-home developers in the race to take Conway over and build it out.
Because of that apparent push for instant urbanization with an Atlantic City flavor, Conway citizens spent the next year wrangling over whether to adopt zoning. I took the “pro” side of that fight, but six years on the planning board showed me how weak our ordinance was, especially in a state where judges sided with private interests. With a new town manager reluctant to enforce ordinances, a new planning board chair hostile to regulation, and a new district-court judge who couldn’t get his finger out of his — um — vest pockets, anything we saved in the ‘80s was lost in the ‘90s. Zoning and site plan regulations posed only minor annoyance for well-heeled developers, but became significant impediments to local, bootstrap business owners.
Gentrification accompanied that retail and vacation-home boom, pushing people of modest means out of town, and even out of surrounding towns. That deprived the mills in Conway Village of their traditional employees, but no committee was established to provide artificially affordable housing for them. It was (and still is) widely believed that North Conway’s tourist bloc could not wait to see those noisy factories and their sweat-stained workers disappear.
Hostility over paving blocks and mini-motels run by absentee landlords reflects residual animosity from over a century of tension between proletarian community residents and a privileged class of recreational promoters. The former value the stability and fraternal familiarity of their neighborhoods; the latter are primarily concerned with turnover.
In locales where tourism predominates, it's difficult to ignore an aroma of community prostitution, and it doesn’t have to lean to the hedonistic offerings of Fort Lauderdale or Las Vegas to smell that way. Some letters objecting to the impending enforcement of illegal STRs betray precisely that impression, implying that the entire town should put out for visitors by surrendering the right to contain commercial enterprise. The opposition is also heavy with nonresidents and participants. Of 70 respondents to last week’s Tele-Talk question about issuing cease-and-desist orders, I recognized only three names, and they all responded exactly as I would have expected.
It’s not fair, many wail. They bought property as STRs in residential districts because others seemed to be getting away with it, and they thought they could, too.
Don’t eliminate STRs, they ask; just regulate them. That’s just what happened, long ago. Now the selectmen are going to enforce it.
Most STRs cause no trouble, runs a popular argument; don’t punish everyone for the actions of a few. I agree completely. Now I expect those who made that plea to help lobby our legislators against broad-brush gun control.
Numerous out-of-towners have written in, assuring us that they will be going elsewhere if they can’t rent every unit in Conway by the day. They’ll take their money elsewhere, but that’s okay; they won’t be clogging our streets with their cars and carcasses.
I confess that I read some of their letters aloud to myself. It was music to my ears.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.