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    Saturday, August 20, 2022

    Stonington prepares for second forum on short-term rentals

    Stonington -- Town officials have summarized the input they received from the approximately 70 residents who attended an initial public workshop last month on possibly regulating short-term rentals and are now planning a second forum on July 20 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Velvet Mill.

    At the first meeting on June 20, residents wrote their comments on whiteboards about five topics such as what are the benefits and drawbacks of short-term rentals. Later they were asked to put a star next to the ideas and/or concerns that were most important to them.

    First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said conducting the forum in this fashion helped avoid the confrontation of a traditional public hearing and made people more comfortable sharing their opinions. 

    At the July 20 meeting, the plan is to have small group discussions about various aspects of regulating short-term rentals and then offer each group a chance to summarize their discussion with the larger group.

    "Maybe some consensus will develop on some of the items," Chesebrough said.

    A third meeting will likely be held at which time town officials may present a proposed regulation for residents to consider and discuss. A town meeting would be needed for residents to approve any regulation.

    "I think we can do better than what we are doing now, which is nothing," Chesebrough said about overseeing short-term rentals.

    She said the town may be able to start out with some initial rules that can later be revised.

    Among the actions residents suggested at the initial workshop is that the town should ensure home capacity limits are not exceeded, enforce current rules on noise and parking, allow short-term rentals only in an owner-occupied dwelling, provide property owners phone numbers to adjacent neighbors and limit the number of short-term rentals in a certain area.

    Another suggestion as to restrict "party houses." Coincidentally, two weeks ago Airbnb made permanent its temporary ban on what it calls "party house" properties which can result in owners and renters being removed from using the popular rental platform. VRBO has a similar rule.

    Others at the workshop said the town should not ban short-term rentals, negatively impact rentals that have no record of disturbances, require rentals to be owner-occupied or restrict the time of a rental.

    Outside of the forum the town has received suggestions from numerous residents. Among these are defining short-term rentals as businesses and therefore prohibited in residential zones if they occur more than twice in any year and creating an association of local short-term rental operators that would work with the town, develop best practices and communicate with operators about complaints and enforcement.

    Others include requiring off-street parking for owners and guests; limiting the number of rentals owned by an individual or business; limiting the number of days per year that a unit can be occupied by short-term guests and requiring all short-term rentals to be registered and taxed.

    One resident wrote that the state is an "extremely expensive" place to live and "the town should not interfere with its residents ability to make money and definitely should NOT be putting regulations in place where we would have to pay for permits or pay some additional taxes for this. No permits, no additional taxes, no regulations."

    Another pointed out "the homes that I've seen purchased for short-term rentals have ALL been updated and look way nicer than they did before.  The yards have been cleaned up, the homes have been painted or resided, and all look much nicer."

    One renter wrote "we have built an extensive 'What To Do Guide' for people to eat out, shop, and visit local sites -- supporting and stimulating the local economy with a special focus on small businesses. To further support small businesses, we give guests who stay a bottle of wine from Saltwater Farm Vineyard and have stocked the house with local soaps from the Main Street Soap Emporium to name a few examples."

    The town says it welcomes input ahead of the July 20 next meeting, and that can be done by email, phone or in-person meetings. Anyone with input can contact Director of Economic and Community Development Susan Cullen at scullen@stonington-ct.gov or Chesebrough at dchesebrough@stonington-ct.gov.

    The town is among several others in southeastern Connecticut such as Groton, Waterford, Ledyard and Noank that are deciding how to deal with short-terms rentals listed on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO. The rentals have resulted in complaints from some residents about noise, parties and traffic from what they say are commercial operations in residential neighborhoods. Other impacts include a reduction in long-term housing stock and decreasing demand for hotel rooms. But supporters of the increasingly popular practice say renting their properties help them pay tax and mortgage bills.    

    In December 2016, a large crowd of short-term renters and opponents of the practice attended a Planning and Zoning Commission forum to tell members how they felt about the practice. Two months later, the Planning and Zoning Commission decided that the town's zoning regulations do not regulate short-term rentals and it would not enforce the violation notices the town had issued to people who rented out their homes. Former Director of Planning Jason Vincent said at the time it would be up to someone to propose an ordinance to regulate the practice that would then have to be approved by residents at a town meeting.

    At the time, planning staff had interpreted existing zoning regulations to mean that short-term rentals of less than 30 days is not a permitted use in the town's residential zones. Complicating the issue is that for many years, homes and cottages, especially in waterfront communities, such as Lord's Point and Masons Island, have been rented to people during the summer months. In recent years, short-term rentals in Mystic have become popular.

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