The Island’s planning board agreed that more town-level discussion about short-term rentals is needed before a regional effort can be considered.
The All-Island Planning Board meeting convened Wednesday evening to “discuss the development of a short-term rental bylaw and/or regulations,” according to the agenda item on the Oak Bluffs website. Short-term rentals have been an issue the Island has been grappling with, particularly how the practice shrinks housing availability, and how short-term rental taxes should be regulated. The planning boards of Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah were unable to make a quorum, or did not post the meeting on time, but present members from these boards participated as individuals.
Ben Robinson, Tisbury planning board chair and a Tisbury commissioner in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said “this issue of all — of the issues around housing — seems like one squarely in the planner’s purview and the planning board’s purview, as we think about potential regulations.” Robinson hoped to “get a sense across the Island towns” on how short-term rentals are viewed, whether short-term rentals should be tackled as an Islandwide initiative, and whether the boards could prepare a plan for the spring town meetings.
“Even if we don’t get there, we’ll at least have embarked on this work, which I feel is really critical,” he said. “We are hemorrhaging housing stock to a short-term rental industry that is not just made up of the locals who have traditionally rented out homes in the summer. It’s more and more becoming investment groups, larger corporations, and et cetera. I think it’s something we need to get a handle on.”
Aquinnah planning board chair Jim Wallen admitted that he rents out his house in the winter in order to afford it. He continued by saying Aquinnah has a different situation from the down-Island towns, due to its smaller size, high prices, and lower convenience of living.
“It seems … it’s not so much corporations investing up here as it is down-Island, and we have a shrinking tax base between the Land Bank and the tribe,” Wallen said. “I don’t think many people would be able to live here without renting their houses. That’s where I’m coming from here.”
Wallen said he thinks the ability to do short-term rentals should be protected. Robinson agreed that Islanders renting out homes is “a historic part of our economy.”
“I don’t think, in my mind, we’re going after every short-term rental option that’s out there, and I think we’re gonna have to protect those types of short-term rentals that are a part of our historic economy,” Robinson said, adding that more research will be needed to understand the economics of short-term rentals and the impact it has on the Island.
Chilmark planning board chair Richard Osnoss said a regional effort to protect short-term rentals “could be wonderful,” and said he would “love to have data to base our decisions on.”
“I think we can all agree that we don’t want to see corporations, nonmembers of the community, using our community to simply fatten their wallets,” Osnoss said. “Anything we can do to begin this process that we can agree on Islandwide I’ll support.”
Beatrice Phear, a member of the West Tisbury short-term rental subcommittee, said her town has been discussing this issue. Her subcommittee decided it wants to allow short-term rentals to remain legal in West Tisbury.
“We’re going to put in our April warrant the definition of short-term rentals and have it be permitted in residential zones, so that we’re in compliance with the decision of the Lynnfield court case. That’s as far as we got in terms of final decisions. Members of our [subcommittee] are definitely on a spectrum of where they want to regulate and where they don’t want to regulate, but I think we all agree we want to continue to allow Island residents to rent their homes on a short-term basis. The question is where to draw the line for seasonal, and how to define a seasonal resident who should be allowed, or an investor owner who should not be allowed,” Phear said, referencing the 2021 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision Styler v. Zoning Board of Appeals of Lynnfield that made short-term rentals illegal in that town’s residential zones. “We want to prohibit absentee, investor, short-term landlords, and we want to permit residential landlords, and how to draw the line and where that line gets drawn on that spectrum is what we keep grappling with.”
Tisbury planning board member Casey Hayward said “dividing the terms” and getting a grasp of the definitions will be needed.
West Tisbury affordable housing committee member Jefrey DuBard agreed that the housing stock is hemorrhaging, but felt an Islandwide initiative would be unwieldy, since “the bigger the boat, the harder it is to turn.”
“The six towns have very different opinions on this, levels of sensitivity, feelings on what we do going forward, and I just feel like getting all of the towns to agree on something is the wrong place for us to be putting our efforts,” he said. “Every town should be doing it independently with their full force right now, as West Tisbury has, and that is really the only way we get anything done as soon as we need to.”
West Tisbury short-term rental subcommittee member John Rau agreed with DuBard, pointing out how even in his group, there can be difficulty in decisionmaking. Rau added that the Lynnfield decision potentially makes short-term rentals in residential zones illegal on the Island, and will need to be addressed by the towns through bylaw amendments. “The devil is in the details,” Rau said.
Robinson said that each town will need to think about what to bring before their voters, but collaboration can also be done by sharing resources and data. “We can always do both,” he said.
David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Housing Authority, said the housing landscape is changing on-Island, particularly with the growth of short-term rentals. “You basically have over a few thousand properties now that, in the summertime mostly, are people on vacation,” Vigneault said.
Wallen pointed out that there was a decrease in short-term rental property stock up-Island, since “so many people moved here during COVID because they can work remotely.”
Martha’s Vineyard Commission housing planner Laura Silber said other resort towns in the U.S., such as Provincetown, are undertaking studies about short-term rentals in their communities.
“Undertaking that study is really a critical component of understanding this, because as a seasonal resort community, we’re looking at different issues than a location like Salem, which put in a very effective short-term rental ordinance,” Silber said, later adding that the studies found a “direct correlation” between a rise in short-term rentals and a decrease in the housing stock.
After further discussion, a decision was made that each planning board should discuss short-term rentals independently, and to hold another All-Island Planning Board meeting in mid-December. Meanwhile, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will continue its research. The planning boards can send inquiries to Silber, who will compile them for the study. It was decided that the spring town meetings will be too soon to present a plan to voters, but Robinson said the towns’ planning boards can at least “get the ball rolling.”