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Noank prepares to enforce prohibition on short-term rentals

Groton — After more than two years of deliberations on two proposed ordinances to regulate short-term rentals, the Noank Zoning Commission has decided to instead direct the zoning enforcement officer to enforce the current prohibition on rentals such as those through Airbnb and Vrbo.

Chairman Rick Smith has noted that any use not explicitly allowed in the zoning regulations is prohibited, but the prohibition hasn't been enforced.

"We exhaustively turned over every rock and explored every possible way of doing this for over two years, and we've come to the conclusion that it's not in the best interest of Noank to change our rules to let short-term renting occur," Smith said.

At a meeting on Aug. 26, the commission voted 5-0 to leave the Noank Zoning Ordinance as is, meaning short-term rentals remain a non-authorized use, and then 5-0 to end the deferral of enforcement.

"The way we've been working at this for two and a half years is to craft something out for this group, but that's not really how we're supposed to regulate," member Beth Steele said. "We're not supposed to regulate for a target audience; we're supposed to regulate for the village as a whole."

Smith first pushed for allowing hosted renting, meaning the owner is living at the property during rentals. He called this "functionally a residential use of a residential property," whereas non-hosted renting is "running a hotel with no supervision on your private, residential property."

Steele said both hosted and non-hosted rentals are a commercial use, and commission member Nip Tanner said going down the path Smith suggested "would turn into a can of worms."

Smith ultimately ended up voting with the group, "partly because I've been persuaded and partly because I like unanimous votes on very contentious subjects."

How will this be enforced?

The day after the meeting, Smith notified the commission's email list of the two votes and said, "It is expected that this enforcement effort will be progressively applied, using the methods available by statute for Zoning Enforcement Officers to enforce a municipality's ordinances."

Some residents were confused by what "progressively applied" meant.

Smith told The Day on Friday that it will be up to the ZEO and attorney, respectively Bill Mulholland and John Casey, to determine the process for enforcement. Asked about his advice for short-term rental operators in the meantime, he said if it were him, he wouldn't take any more bookings.

But he said "enforcement will not be instantaneous. It will be a process that gives people their right to have it communicated to them." He didn't have a timeline to begin enforcement.

Mulholland, who also serves as zoning official in East Lyme, said a list of STR operators will be developed, and they will be notified to cease operations. He said there will be notice of what the penalties are for failure to comply.

"It's sort of a work in progress right now," Mulholland said, adding that he needs to sit down with Casey and Smith.

While the commission has now scrapped a 2019 draft and a 2021 draft ordinance regulating short-term rentals, Smith doesn't think the past two years were a waste of time, or that the commission could've come to its conclusion in six months or a year.

"We'll get criticized from people who are unhappy with the decision," Smith said, "but we can't be criticized for lack of effort and a lack of being conscientious about trying to find a pathway forward that could satisfy all sides. In fact, we couldn't find that, and that's unfortunate."

Noankers react

Wayne Burdick said he was disappointed by the decision but has modified his VRBO listing to be a 30-night minimum.

"Whether it is somebody for a week or four weeks, it is still going to be the same sort of families showing up, but we will comply with the law," Burdick said.

The proposed regulations had defined a short-term rental as less than 30 days. Asked Friday if Noank residents could rent their property for 30 days or more to the same party, Mulholland said this is "under discussion with legal."

Burdick, who lives in South Carolina and said he spends about half the summer in Noank, said short-term rentals help defray the more than $40,000 a year in taxes, insurance and maintenance on the home, which has been in the family for five generations.

Fellow short-term rental operator Amy Kirschner feels the commission threw out the work it had done for two years to try to compromise and instead said, "'You can't do this,' in a way that leaves complete ambiguity."

Kirschner called the commission's action a "come-sue-me way of dealing with this process" but declined to say whether she would pursue legal action.

The commission is "picking one thing that's not regulated and saying it's illegal. What else that's not listed in the regulations is illegal?" Kirschner questioned. She asked whether it would be illegal to put up a reindeer at Christmastime, or a Hannukah menorah, or a religious totem pole. In response, Smith said he would let the commission's vote speak for itself, and that trying to parse hypotheticals is "just running down a rabbit hole."

Ben Greenfield, who stressed that he wants to be a good neighbor, said he now will be marketing the unit he had on Airbnb as a long-term rental, as he used to do. He said doing short-term rentals helped him a lot during the pandemic, and he called the new approach draconian.

Greenfield is holding out hope that the commission will come up with something "a little bit more fair for everybody" in the future.

Noank residents and property owners were divided in a public comment meeting in July, and so some are happy with the commission's decision. Smith was up for re-election to the Zoning Commission in May and won 108-89 against Gabi Smillie, a short-term rental operator who decided to throw her name in a few weeks prior.

Short-term renting is "corrosive to communities, and it should not exist, and God bless our zoning commission," Elisabeth Pendery said. "They are so courageous and they made the right decision, not flippantly, but after two and a half years, with due diligence and careful consideration."

She said the commission decided to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people, noting there might be around 30 STR operators out of hundreds of homes in Noank. She said "communities need neighbors," and that she could've easily put her second unit on Airbnb and made four times as much money but instead has someone there long-term.

Both Pendery and Mary Cuthbert voiced concern about short-term rentals depleting the availability of long-term rentals and about kids not having other children to play with.

Cuthbert said Friday, "I don't believe that short-term rentals belong in a residential community," saying people need to be in hotels when they're visiting communities.

e.moser@theday.com

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