Signs, vacation rentals, stir debate in Edgartown

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Edgartown planning board heard a vigorous debate at their Tuesday meeting on the issues of regulating vacation rentals and regulating business signs.

The planning board deferred any decisions on the issue, so they can consider several letters sent by concerned residents and business people. The board must decide whether to submit any bylaw changes to town meeting for a vote.

Attorney Ronald Monterosso submitted a draft bylaw to the planning board which would prohibit renting a home to more than six people at any given time, if the renters have no lease, or a lease of 90 days or less. The homeowner would need a special permit from the planning board to rent to more than six people. He said current state and local regulations were designed to regulate boarding houses, not vacation rentals.

“What I did was try to make a definition that makes sense for today,” Mr. Monterosso said. “I have proposed this change to plug a hole.”

Mr. Monterosso, along with dozens of Chappaquiddick residents, have demanded action from town boards on a vacation rental once advertized to accommodate 20 people.

The advertisement described a five-bedroom, four-bath vacation retreat on Sampson’s Hill that sleeps 10. The house at 7 Chapel Avenue is owned by Stephen Olsson of Manchester, N.H.

The board of health issued a septic permit for two bedrooms in 1999, after an extensive review of the floor plans.

Mr. Olsson also advertises an adjacent property at 72 Chappaquiddick Avenue as a six-bedroom vacation rental.

Chappaquiddick resident Roger Becker spoke in favor of the proposed bylaw, but suggested the limit should be increased to eight people, to improve the chance that voters will approve it at town meeting.

Several people who operate vacation rental agencies spoke forcefully against the measure.

“I’ve owned a vacation rental company for 20 years,” said Ann Floyd. “With rare exceptions, we’ve never had a problem. I think this has come before you because of a problem. I don’t think there’s a need for this. Call the police, that’s what the police are there for.”

Sharon Purdy, who also operates a vacation rental agency said the bylaw would generate many requests for special permits. “I think this is the wrong venue to address the questions at hand,” she said. “We have 140 houses in our inventory, in Edgartown, with four bedrooms or more.”

Mr. Monterosso responded. “People point to one bad apple, but that’s the camel’s nose under the tent. There’s no resistance because there’s no bylaw. Others will follow.”

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign

A proposed revision of the town’s sign regulations also sparked passionate debate. Martin Tomassian, chairman of the volunteer sign advisory committee, said that “out of frustration,” the committeed embarked on a three-month project to simplify and clarify the current regulations.

“They are hard to read, they are difficult to administer, they are difficult to interpret,” Mr. Tomassian said. “We couldn’t even explain the bylaws to an applicant.”

Committee members said there were very few substantive changes in the regulations, but the new proposed bylaw is updated and better organized.

Christina Cook, president of the Edgartown Board of Trade, said member businesses want signs that maintain the character of the town, but have objections to some of the proposed regulations.

“I think it would have been nice if the sign committee had approached the Board of Trade before this,” Ms. Cook said.

Jackie Farrell, who owns Katama General Store, said she took down a sign this past summer when Mr. Tomassian told her it did not conform to the bylaw.

“I think they’re not particularly business-friendly,” Ms. Farrell said of the current and proposed bylaws. “Who defines character? We’re basing what a sign is on preserving the character and heritage of the town. It’s left to a small group of people.”

Fred Mascolo, a planning board member who owns several businesses, including Trader Fred’s, called for a more lenient approach to enforcement.

“I these were normal times and we all made a ton of money, I would agree with a lot of the things I’m reading,” Mr. Mascolo said. “But we are not in normal times. I think it’s critically important that we promote business. It’s so hard to make a living year-round. We should be helping business so they stay around. If there’s a sticker on a door here and there, and it helps a business stay another year, in my mind, that’s okay.

The planning board will resume public hearings on the issues at its January 8 meeting. Another bylaw change on the agenda was postponed because discussion of the first two ran late.

The planning board is also considering changes in the bylaws covering the development of substandard lots for affordable housing.