In a recent letter to the editor, Madison Realtor Phil LaRoche made a compelling argument for absolute property rights, tracing them back to the Middle Ages. But in most towns, such rights are not absolute, the most obvious example being zoning (as we know, residential zones rarely include commercial businesses).
LaRoche makes a case for unregulated short-term rentals, which due to websites like Airbnb and VRBO, have exploded in popularity. Some 800 properties in the valley are listed on those platforms, and towns are struggling to control them.
Kearsarge Lighting Precinct recently considered five versions of an ordinance before selecting one to propose to voters. Kearsarge resident and Realtor Josh Brustin also has petitioned for an alternative ordinance that will also appear on its ballot. Conway selectmen are tasking a committee with writing an ordinance for voters to consider in 2021.
Whatever regulations result from these ordinances, our view is that the overriding principle should be to discourage absentee owners from using their properties exclusively for short-term rentals.
The concept behind the principle is quite simple: Absentee-owned properties are basically hotels; properties used as hotels are businesses; and businesses do not belong in residential zones.
The good news for town officials is there is no shortage of ways to reduce the financial attractiveness of these properties through regulations, most of which can be enforced by outside vendors, Host Compliance being the best-known.
Kearsarge is proposing an ordinance to restrict short-term rentals to owner-occupied properties and defining long-term rentals as anything over 60 days. This would let property owners use their homes as short-term rentals for 365 days a year as long as they live in them. But when they do not, they could rent seasonally for a minimum of 60 days. As we all know, renting seasonally, particularly to skiers, is a practice with a long history in the valley.
Brustin’s petitioned ordinance would allow absentee owners to rent their properties all the time, but imposes strict guidelines and a registration process. He contends that such regulations would pressure absentee owners to be good neighbors, a premise we don’t disagree with. What it doesn’t do, however, is discourage owners from running their properties like businesses.
The city of Laconia recently adopted a slightly less restrictive ordinance, allowing short-term rentals as long as the owner lives there for 150 days. This means that once that threshold is met, the owner can use the property for short-term rentals the rest of the year, or 215 days.
But because Laconia has a large itinerant working population — mostly traveling nurses working at the Lakes Region General Hospital — that city also is considering an amendment that would define long-term as just 14 days. Thus, absentee owners could rent to anyone staying just two weeks.
Another way to discourage absentee owners from turning homes into businesses is to limit the number of short-term rental days per year to 60 or 90 days.
Those on both sides of the property rights debate agree that only a few “bad apples” cause most of the problems. Almost exclusively, they are absentee owners who don’t care about the character of their neighborhoods or the wishes of its residents.
None of the above options bans short-term rentals outright.
They do restore a measure of balance between the rights of property owners and the implied right of full-time residents to live in peace. And they do it by gutting the financial incentive for absentee owners to turn their homes into hotels in residential zones where they don’t belong.