After months of fierce debate, Great Barrington passes short-term rental regulations

Town Moderator Michael Wise, on the podium at left, calls for a vote at last night’s annual town hall meeting, held outside in the parking lot of the Regional High School in Monument Mountain. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Great Barrington — As expected, Great Barrington’s Annual Meeting last night was dominated by one question: what to do about the proliferation of Airbnb-style short-term rentals. And his dominance was evidenced by the fact that every other item in the mandate, including the budget and zoning bylaw changes, passed with little dissent.

Full terms of reference for what turned out to be a four hour meeting can be found here. After a heated debate lasting about an hour, a controversial STR proposal from selection committee member Leigh Davis passed by a perhaps larger margin than expected: 207-111. City Clerk Jennifer Messina said 380 Great Barrington residents attended the meeting.

Watch the Edge video below of the discussion and vote on the draft short-term rental settlement approved by the selection committee:

The proposal, which earlier this year was approved 3-1 by the selection committee, would allow STRs in a primary or secondary unit. If the owner lives “on site”, he can rent the STR for an unlimited number of nights. If the owner lives elsewhere, the maximum number of nights he can rent is 150 days per year. A less strict competing proposal placed on the warrant via a citizen petition failed.

During the long discussion, the speakers reiterated the previously stated reasons for supporting or opposing the measure. Billy Sothern, a lawyer and writer who moved with his family to Great Barrington in November after 21 years in Louisiana, said he saw firsthand what STRs had done to his New Orleans neighborhood.

Finance committee deputy chair Anne O’Dwyer, right, makes a point, while fellow committee members Madonna Meagher and Philip Orenstein listen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The majority of the houses were STRs and the people living there had no idea who our day-to-day neighbor was going to be,” said Sothern, who recently writes a letter to the editor of The Edge in support of the settlement and describing his experience.

Sothern said things got so bad that the situation created a “backlash against STRs.” He opposed what he called a “corporate-led effort to keep STR deregulation in New Orleans.” The result was a regulatory regime — modified since – to place “heavy restrictionson STRs across the city.

“After the law was passed, the STRs in my neighborhood became residences for full-time residents,” Sothern said. “So we went from a block with neighbors to a block with STRs, and after the bylaws were passed in New Orleans…they became neighborhoods again and my kids had neighbors and I had someone next to whom I could take a cup of milk.

Others weren’t exactly thrilled with the proposal. Sarah Dixon said she had previously rented houses to seasonal visitors to generate income “to offset… the high cost of living here in the city.” She insisted she didn’t want the city to take away her right to use her property as it sees fit.

Police Chief Paul Storti, right, explains his department’s need for body cameras, while Chief Financial Officer Susan Carmel and Deputy City Manager Chris Rembold listen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“This bylaw was created with minimal research and, quite simply, I cannot vote for a bylaw that will increase my taxes and also reduce the value of my property,” said Dixon, who did not specify how. the settlement would increase his taxes.

Others who spoke in opposition included a longtime member of the planning board, an architect and a real estate broker. Jonathan Hankinswho argued that, although full of good intentions, the proposal would not have the intended effect and would infringe property rights.

In prepared remarks, Sharon Gregory, the former chair of the city’s finance committee, described the proposal as a “game changer” and cited the example of what happened to the city of Provincetown, in the Outer Cape Cod , which is rapidly losing full-time residents. She also noted that Airbnb had sent an email to its STR operators in Great Barrington urging them to vote against the proposed settlement, known as Section 25 of the mandate.

“By not exceeding 25, we’re keeping the barn door open,” Gregory said. “We invite non-residents to buy more of our housing stock. Estate agents will verify that bidding investors, who will outbid most residents, are waiting for our voting results. »

In a fiery speech, downtown bar owner Christopher Hale said he supported STR’s proposal. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The highlight of the evening was an impassioned speech by a downtown bartender, Christopher Hale, who works at Miller’s Pub. It starts at 9:50 p.m. in the video above. Hale posed the problem in terms of supply and demand.

“People come here to America’s premier cultural resort, cultural destination … for the drinks, the shows, the arts, the community investment, the nature,” Hale said. “It’s the supply for which you create the demand.” Hale presented the proposal as “an important firewall against the slow bleeding” of struggling working-class people and artists and “everyone who makes the Berkshires great”. He called the situation “shameful”.

Referring to the closure over the past two years of the city’s only remaining laundromats, downtown on School Street and south of town on Big Y Plaza, Hale added, his voice rising in outrage: “My friends have to drive 30 minutes to a laundromat, with $5 worth of gas. We have six [cannabis] clinics and nowhere for working-class people to do their laundry.

And so on. All other articles of the mandate adopted, including the city ​​budget itemshis contribution to Berkshire Hills Regional School Districtbody camera funding for Great Barrington Police Department, eight Community Preservation Act Projects, three zoning regulations and a 3% impact fee on the STRs to be allocated to the municipality Affordable Housing Trust.

Charlie Williamson asks a question about the budget at a town meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Abby Schroeder launches a successful appeal to increase the capital budget for city parks. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Division Street resident Trevor Forbes. Photo: Terry Cowgill
Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon holds up a copy of a backgrounder he had prepared ahead of the meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Michael J. Chiaramonte