Noank residents: Yes to Airbnb and Vrbo, no to regulations as written

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Groton — Noank residents speaking at a public hearing Tuesday night largely are in favor of allowing Airbnb and Vrbo rentals in their community but oppose the proposed short-term rental regulations as written, finding them too restrictive or arbitrary.

Considering a few approve of both short-term rentals and the regulations, and others wish the regulations were more restrictive, some of the 28 people speaking at a meeting of the Noank Fire District Zoning Commission found themselves confused as to whether they were in favor or against.

Ultimately, the commission opted to table a vote for a later date. The commission can't make any substantive changes before voting, which surely disappoints the many residents whose gripes are not minor.

The process began with a public workshop in January so the Zoning Commission could ascertain whether those living in the fire district — which has about 750 homes — wanted regulations in place. This followed a complaint about a neighbor's disruptive short-term rentals.

"This is a concern not just in the fire district, not just in Groton, not just in Connecticut, but all over the country," John Casey, the attorney who wrote the proposed amendments, said Tuesday. "What do you do about Airbnb? What do you do about Vrbo?"

He and Chair Beth Steele explained that if a use is not expressly allowed in the zoning ordinance, it's prohibited, though Casey added that any use established prior to the start of zoning is grandfathered in. The prohibition on short-term rentals is not being enforced.

A check on Wednesday showed more than 15 listings on Airbnb within the confines of the Noank Fire District.

The proposed zoning amendment defines "short term" as less than 30 consecutive days. It requires an operator to obtain a permit, post a floor plan in each bedroom that shows emergency exit routes, and have a secondary contact available to respond to the property within 60 minutes "of being contacted concerning an emergency, complaint, or problem," if the operator is not present or available.

"The posting of all exits and floorplans in every room is excessive," Noank resident Andy Giblin said. "These houses do not contain disorienting hotel corridors."

In a comment others echoed, Giblin objected to the commission's process. While the January meeting allowed residents to suggest whether regulations were pursued, he noted there were no public workshops or public hearings after that for people to be involved in the crafting of the language.

Under the proposal, a unit can't be rented more than 34 times per year.

Multiple Noankers asked about the rationale for this number, and Steele explained, "Some people wanted more, some people wanted less, but the concern was that we not have professional renters on our hands, that someone buys a house for the sole purpose of renting it."

She said that while no cost has been set for permit yet, it would be on the "nominal" side and not "extravagant." The proposal also stipulates that, after given notice and the chance for a public hearing, operators in violation of the standards could have their permits revoked.

Rentals offer help with property taxes

Several people expressed that they rent because they desperately want to hold on to a generation-spanning connection to Noank, but the high property taxes have made it difficult.

Reading her brother Wayne Burdick's letter, Victoria Burdick said renting "helps to offset the exorbitant property tax and maintenance expenses." Amy Kirschner, who primarily lives in New York, said the only reason she rents her Noank house is to "defray the extremely high Groton property taxes."

"We're sharing our home with people, so we're very, very careful about who we rent to, and we're also very cognizant of our neighbors," she said, noting she asks them afterward if they had any issues. She also noted that "this is not the Hamptons," and she rents for maybe five weeks out of the summer.

Similarly, Sarah Strong said she "does this as little as possible, maybe a couple weeks out of the year." She added that she's "not just having some kids here with a party in mind."

"Late-night noise and parking issues I've experienced in Noank have all been associated with resident family celebrations," Jim Giblin said, eliciting laughter. "People are people, and with bad luck you can just as easily have a full-time resident whose behavior is disturbing. I don't understand the fear of people from away. Many have later become residents."

Jean Clark indicated that Airbnb is good for the local economy, noting that her guests go to Ford's Lobster, Carson's Store and The Seahorse Restaurant at Spicer's Marina.

But Tom Dulaney said his experience has been "totally the opposite" of the rosy picture others have painted. He said his neighbor's house is "nothing but a revolving door of parties in the summer," and when he calls the cops, they can't do anything.

Also opposed to short-term rentals is Zell Steever, saying they "will slowly but surely further deplete the number of full-time people living in our community" and that it's "not the purpose of zoning to allow people to make the maximum amount of money on their property."

He thinks the only way short-term rentals might work would be if the owner were required to occupy the residence. Kimberly and Edward Johnson, who didn't attend but wrote a letter, also said they'd be more comfortable if the owner/operator were living at the residence.

e.moser@theday.com

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