Tisbury alters short-term rental inspections

Town mints 350 coins, Halloween is on, parade is off.

Tisbury select board chair Jeff Kristal told the board Tisbury has garnered $883,158 from the short term rental tax.

Wednesday evening, Oct. 20, Tisbury’s select board voted unanimously to advertise for the continuance of the town’s short-term rental committee, also called a task force. Ahead of the vote, building commissioner Ross Seavey told the board that Host Compliance, the company the town has contracted to identify short-term rental units and to distribute compliance letters, isn’t worth keeping. The deal costs $20,000 a year, and Seavey said he believes his office could do a more economical job. Furthermore, he said he didn’t find Host Compliance as effective at finding short-term rental units as it could be. 

“One of my issues with Host Compliance is, well, clearly, we’re missing units,” Seavey said. “They have 221, the state has 356 [in Tisbury].”

Seavey said the town may be better off relying on the state’s database rather than the one Host Compliance compiled. 

“They’re only searching the big-name websites,” Seavey said of Host Compliance. “So the problem is we have a lot of local realtors and local organizations that are doing rentals that are not showing up on their lists. So I’ve reached out to them and said, ‘Hey, what can we do about this? For $5,000 per website, they will go out there and search it for us …”

Seavey added, “Is it working? I don’t really think so … What they’re providing us is not that amazing of a service, it’s really kind of just information.” 

Seavey said Host Compliance did send out letters on behalf of the town, and therefore the town saves on aspects of the postal work. Nonetheless, Seavey said this was insubstantial compared to what the company charges.

Overall, Seavey said more than half the short-term rental units in Tisbury are registered. He said he has found it rewarding to interact with short-term rental owners, and the feedback has been valuable. “Most people are happy we’re doing this — makes them feel better about what they’re providing to the public,” he said.

Going forward, Seavey said unit inspections aren’t going to happen annually, but every other year. In part, he said this was because inspections have gotten off to a slow start this year due to regulations not coming out until spring. He added the regulations don’t stipulate inspection must be annual. He said not much will change in a single year that the town will be unable to detect, and an every-other-year schedule would also lessen the burden on inspection staff.

Life safety issues have been the primary focus of the short-term rental committee, he said, but going forward, that could change.

“Are there other ills created by short-term rentals that should be addressed outside of just basic life safety and sanitary,” he said, “and if there are, then that’s what the short-term rental committee should be looking at.” Seavey told the board common issues found in the $75 inspections were expired or missing smoke detectors, unsafe dryer vents, and missing fire extinguishers. He noted there were “lots of people with bedrooms that were probably added sometime later, after the house was built, pushing it over the septic capacity.”

He said the board of health has been working with these owners to get back capacity. 

“Because renters are not always kind to septic, so — you’re already kind of taking a risk by having renters in your house when you have a septic, but to also be renting over your septic capacity is even more worrisome.”

Inspections have revealed illegal apartments, Seavey said. 

“So far, we have at least four illegal apartments that we’ve found,” he said. “So I’m actively working with those property owners to get them to either remove the illegal apartments or [if they can] — just go through the process of making it legal. I know we have at least one person who’s already submitted their ZBA application to make their apartment legal. So it’s good, we’re getting into some of these places that have been flying under the radar.”

Seavey said he saw no reason to nix the registration fee for short-term rental units of $115.

“That’s maybe the biggest gripe we’ve gotten about it, but in reality, when people say that to me and I turn around and say, ‘Well you know, I see your Airbnb listing, and that’s half of one night,’ that generally kind of reframes it.” 

Select board member Larry Gomez asked Seavey if the every-other-year inspection cycle would encompass lodging businesses like the bed and breakfast Gomez owns. Seavey said it wouldn’t, as lodging houses are subject to different regulations that call for annual inspections.

“Would you recommend not to do lodging licenses every year?” Gomez asked. “Wouldn’t that allow you to have a little bit more free time to do other things?”

“It’s not a bad idea, and I would agree most years — sometimes we don’t find anything because we caught everything the year before,” Seavey said, “but I do believe that it’s regulated by the building code, so I don’t have any ability to weigh in, so …”

“I’m not suggesting that,” Gomez said, “but if you’re talking about the other people every other year, and here we’ve been licensed, me, for 27 years, and I do it every single year. It gets sort of monotonous, but I understand it and I can live with it, and I continue to live with it.”

Seavey said the next phase of cataloging and registering short-term rental units would be to hunt down unregistered units, and find out what’s behind the owners not registering. 

Select board member Roy Cutrer said rental customers will prove effective deputies in vetting units. “I think the ones that would be considered subpar … the tenants are going to make those come to the surface, because when you’re spending the kind of money per night that a lot of these people are spending per night, they don’t tolerate subpar rentals,” Cutrer said. 

Seavey agreed. He added units that are registered provide numbers people can call if they see something out of whack.

Select board chair Jeff Kristal asked when the contract was up with Host Compliance. Seavey said February. 

Kristal said there was a concern in the community that private equity was vacuuming up property to convert into short-term rental units, but he felt that wasn’t accurate. He asked Seavey if that is how he felt.

“Really I’m not seeing that,” Seavey said. “And maybe they’re out there in this group that’s not registering, but thus far everything is individual property owners, seasonal or year-round residents.”

Thus far, Kristal said, the town has taken in over a 12-month period $883,158 in short-term rental tax revenue. 

In other business, the board heard a report from town administrator Jay Grande and his executive assistant Alexandra BenDavid about coins the town commissioned for the 350th anniversary of Tisbury. BenDavid said the coins cost $12.26 each to make, and 350 were made. Grande said he recommended the coins sell for no more than $75. The board voted unanimously to adopt that price cap. He said local businesses will be able to offer them, and they will be immediately available. 

“Obviously a portion of the proceeds can be utilized toward the Tisbury School Project,’ he said.

Grande also told the board while the Tisbury Business Association wasn’t planning a Halloween parade this year, there will be trick-or-treating. He also said no street closures were requested. Tisbury Business Association president Sarah York later told The Times trick-or-treating will be on Main Street from 2 pm to 5 pm on Halloween. 


  1. Just a very quick note to the island community: As a William Street resident, I want to convey to the public that there will be only be a small handful of houses that will be handing out treats on Halloween. The street will not be blocked off as in years past. We want to be sure people know not to expect the big trick or treating experience that has been a long standing tradition. We are certainly not discouraging people from coming through, but we want to manage expectations so as not to disappoint the community.

  2. I’m glad to learn that commissioner Seavey evaluated the Host Compliance contract and found it wanting. That $20,000 cost likely represents a significant part (half?) of the money received in registration and inspection fees. It’s good to make sure rentals are safe. I did find it amusing to create exit maps to post on the bedroom doors of our 4 bedroom part-time rental property–no bedroom is more than 8 feet from the stairway. Perhaps the regulations could recognize different types of properties so they could be regulated differently and appropriately.

  3. ….and Tisbury starts selling its coin collection to make up the 20k it got fleeced by the ‘host compliance regulator’ or are they just minting funny money to cover the ever increasing law suit debt/legal defense fund? Are they selling these coins out of the numerous empty storefronts on Main Street?

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