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.

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(2) comments

DavefromConway

Bill, this is one of those times I disagree with you. For decades, people have been renting their places and now the town wants to make that legal practice illegal. There are property rights here that the courts will have to contend with. This is no different than an outright ban on certain guns today that were perfectly legal yesterday. That is why so called 'assault weapons' were grandfathered under the last federal ban. You cannot make citizens felons overnight nor can you (or should you) make home owners go belly up because you failed to regulate something for decades. The only solution is for grandfathering those who are currently practicing.

RetVet

I can’t help but find several intersecting themes in the opinion articles in the CDS over the last year. If it’s not about the impact of STR’s, it’s about the lack of affordable housing, or the overwhelming increase/influx of tourists, or the extension of the “tourism season” beyond the traditional timespan(s), or the traffic congestion and over-crowding of the parks.

What appears to be very clear is an almost palpable pushback by a community that is rapidly losing its identity and the connection to the things that have made it so very attractive in the first place.

Like so many “small towns” across the Country, we have become an almost immediate refuge from what can only be described as our rapidly decaying urban areas as they are falling into chaos.

The pandemic, along with the civil unrest has certainly exacerbated this migration. And technology has made it much easier for those that can work online to be more mobile/transient.

This new migration brings with it bigger issues that all small towns need to confront. This overwhelming influx comes with different attitudes, agendas, and perspectives that can only be described as incongruous with small-town values and norms.

Urban folks that are capable of making such moves often come with salaries and financial means that far exceed those of the local residents. They also bring a different set of political values that for the most part are reflective of the areas that are fleeing from, and most likely the root cause(s) of things they are fleeing. Both of which can have a huge, almost immediate impact on small communities.

If Small Town America stands an even slight chance of surviving the next decade without surrendering the very things that made them so attractive in the first place, they will lose all of it before they even know what happened.

That’s why it is so important to get active in your local town politics, on every level and let your voices be heard, and start making moves to get control over your own destiny.

Just letting things happen is not an option any longer.

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