Editorial: Fast-track rental regulations in Westport

Posted 8/29/23

Not all short term rentals are bad, or disruptive of neighbors, or a nuisance. While it’s clear that the Spinnaker Way rental  was truly a nuisance, the zoning board’s recent …

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Editorial: Fast-track rental regulations in Westport

Posted

Not all short term rentals are bad, or disruptive of neighbors, or a nuisance. While it’s clear that the Spinnaker Way rental  was truly a nuisance, the zoning board’s recent upholding of a cease-and-desist order in the case — essentially declaring that short-term rentals are not legal — should fast-track the town’s effort to finally create short-term rental regulations. Until that happens, the town is at risk of fielding endless complaints about the many rentals in town, and those who run respectable rentals have the right to wonder whether the town now considers them law-breakers.

Currently, Westport has no by-laws specifically regulating short-term rentals like those advertised on AirBnB and other similar websites. But zoning enforcement officer Ralph Souza argued in his cease-and-desist that the Spinnaker Way rental is prohibited simply because such rentals are not listed as an allowed use in residential/agriculturally zoned land in Westport. The town’s attorney noted before the board’s unanimous vote last week that regardless of the situation on Spinnaker Way, the board’s only job in hearing the owners’ appeal was to consider Souza’s definition of allowed uses. 

Board members unanimously voted to uphold Souza's order, though it’s questionable if such a ruling would be upheld on appeal. However, by board precedent, short term rentals, and there are hundreds of them in Westport, are now prohibited anywhere within that zone.

The ruling will require some urgency from the town, which recently formed a working subcommittee to study the need for regulating short-term rentals here. That process began a few years ago before it was shelved during the Covid epidemic. Now, the need for such by-laws becomes even greater. Until codified by-laws are put in place that specifically regulate short-term rentals, anyone who has a beef with a neighboring renter can place a call to the building office, lodge a complaint, and expect the same response from the town. 

There are many responsible short-term renters in Westport who rely on the income they generate to pay their taxes or afford their homes. Putting them at risk is surely not what the board wanted when members voted last week. But until more specific regulations are put in place to guide the town, even the good ones should have reason to worry.

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