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    Tuesday, April 23, 2024

    Stonington short-term rental vote clarified nothing

    Stonington’s vote Monday on a proposed ordinance that would have modestly regulated short-term rentals provided no clarity.

    The Day’s editorial, appearing a few days before the vote, advising approval, concluded with this commentary: “We urge Stonington residents to make their voices heard by voting in the March 13 referendum … only a large voter turnout will result in a true mandate on the issue, whether in favor or opposed.”

    So much for that.

    Only 7% of eligible voters turned out. And while those who did bother voting overwhelmingly rejected the proposed ordinance, 694-342, no one can know whether that outcome reflected the views of the overall citizenry of the town.

    Adding to the uselessness of the entire effort is that there is also no way of knowing why people voted as they did. Did participating voters reject the proposal because it did not provide enough regulation or because they felt any regulation was unnecessary?

    It has always bothered me when towns hold special elections on important matters. This is usually the result — a poor turnout that reflects only the opinions of a small portion of the electorate. In some cases, towns are committed to major construction expenditures, incurring decades of debt obligations, in these special elections.

    Too bad, you might say. If someone doesn’t bother to vote, they cannot complain about the result. But that doesn’t reflect the reality of people’s lives, often busy with jobs, kids, and many other responsibilities.

    If folks wanted to be informed, The Day provided every opportunity, with objective news articles about the particulars of the proposal and commentaries urging both rejection and approval. But the sad reality is that newspaper readership is in decline. The younger you are the less likely that you are following local news.

    But even in the golden age of local newspapers, a special election on a Monday in March would not attract much of a turnout, unless it was that rare contentious issue that demanded a lot of attention.

    Whenever possible, votes should take place during general elections. In this case, that would have meant the local election in November. Of course, turnouts in local elections are also pathetically low, but they are still several magnitudes larger than 7%. Holding off the vote until the regular election would have meant another summer without regulations on short-term rentals in this tourist town but, as it turns out, that is the case anyway.

    As for the rejected ordinance, it would have required the registering of short-term rentals with the town, mandated that owners or managers of the rental units be readily available to address problems, and carried an obligation to notify renters of the regulations governing noise, trash removal and recycling.

    Critics said the proposed ordinance would have created a lot of bureaucracy while not doing anything to crackdown on the real problem — investor-owned properties operating as de facto hotels in residential neighborhoods.

    Unclear, however, is whether voters rejected the ordinance because they did not want any town regulation — certainly those benefitting from short-term rentals would be inclined to keep the town at bay — or if they rejected the proposal as toothless. Likely the defeat resulted from a combination of both views.

    One thing town leaders could well conclude is that this is not a priority. If it were, wouldn’t more people have bothered to turn out? I don’t expect there will be any eagerness to begin the process anew. The discussion leading to the rejected ordinance had worked its way through the Planning and Zoning Commission, been the subject of multiple public forums, and won approval of the Board of Selectmen.

    I suspect it will take more controversy and more neighbors upset about loud parties at short-term rental homes in their neighborhoods before a serious discussion renews. But if or when that leads to a new proposed ordinance, schedule the vote on it during a regular election.

    Paul Choiniere is the former editorial page editor of The Day, now retired. He can be reached at p.choiniere@yahoo.com.

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