It's happened in a roundabout way, but the town’s decision to let the courts interpret its zoning regulations basically amounts to a grace period for short-term rental owners. The move also lets the town off the hook from enforcing what would have been a very unpopular and messy-to-enforce ban on STRs.
Carroll County Superior Court now will consider the town’s request for a declaratory judgment, a ruling that is likely months away. Regardless of what happens there, Conway should determine its own fate, not leave it up to a judge to decide.
Mostly forgotten in the STR controversy is a 5-0 vote in which selectmen “recommended” a town meeting warrant article to change zoning to allow STRs in residential neighborhoods (notwithstanding Selectman Mary Carey Seavey's change of heart and launching of an 11th-hour campaign against the article, which failed at the polls in April).
Logic suggests that if selectmen supported STRs then, they now should be re-working their failed effort with an ordinance more palatable to voters — obviously, something more restrictive. For years, selectmen have been behind the curve on STRs. Between now and the next town meeting is a window of opportunity to finally get ahead of it.
Conway’s struggles with STRs are far from unique. Two weeks ago, at Nantucket's town meeting, 1,000 voters turned out to weigh in on STRs. Sound familiar? It should, except for the voting results.
On that 48-square-mile island, residents were asked to limit STRs, a change from zoning that allowed their unrestricted use. Article 90 proposed a seven-day minimum rental, and capped rentable nights to 90 a year for resident islanders and 45 for others.
There were the usual arguments about the economy and disruptive renters, but the core issue was affordability, and the effort failed 625-297. The reason? Many residents are second- and third-generation owners, or bought decades ago. Now, their properties, due to attendant expenses including taxes, are beyond the ability of many to afford. So the only way most locals can live in their own homes is to occasionally rent them out.
Conway, obviously, is not an exclusive island with properties going for a minimum of $1.5 million. But Nantucket is a red flag that suggests the tide against STRs among locals could change here as well. A severe recession, for example, might do it.
Let's face it, here in the valley, there will never be anything close to a consensus for either extreme — whether unchecked use of STRs or a total ban. But a reasonable compromise is worth a try.
We long have suggested that one way to discourage the “bad apple” property owners, most of whom are non-resident investors, is to remove the financial incentive of turning properties into mini-hotels. We’ve suggested limiting the number of rentable nights to 90 a year. But we also like Nantucket’s idea of favoring locals over absentee owners.
Whether it is Nantucket's approach or another one, it is time for selectmen to do a reset on STRs — to stop hiding behind the town manager; to openly discuss STRs and include the public; and to propose an alternative to the special articles that failed last spring. In other words, step up and lead.