CHATHAM – Is a rental registration bylaw the right way to collect data about residential water use?
That was one of the central disagreements among members of the board of selectmen last week during their first review of a draft residential rental licensing bylaw. Ultimately board members agreed the measure needed more input from both the public and town boards and they decided not to place it before voters at the May annual town meeting.
“This is not ready for prime time,” said former selectman Sean Summers, who owns rental properties. Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens agreed, suggesting that although the issue of water use is a “huge concern,” the bylaw may go a bit too far.
“It seems to me like it's going to be a miasma of regulatory overreach,” Dykens said. “This is fairly far reaching, but I'm not comfortable teeing this up for town meeting.”
Developed by a working group composed of two selectmen, two members of the board of health and community development and natural resources staff, the bylaw requires the registration of all rental properties in town unless otherwise regulated, such as inns and bed and breakfasts. Owners would pay a one-time $100 fee for a certificate of registration; as many as 1,000 properties might require registration, according to officials.
A spike in water use last year that put the town above a state-imposed pumping cap forced officials to scramble to try to determine where increases in usage were originating. One suggestion was that an increase in rental properties may be responsible, and the bylaw is an effort to understand water use patterns of these properties, said Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson.
The second purpose of the bylaw is to ensure that basic occupancy standards are met to “ensure a safe and healthy rental environment,” according to the draft.
The bylaw doesn't set occupancy standards, Duncanson said, although it does contain a provision allowing officials to set occupancy limits after a public hearing. But he stressed that “this regulation does not do that. It simply says we just want to register your property.”
“When I hear nice and easy I get cautious,” said Selectman Cory Metters. “The easiest thing is sometimes the hardest.”
Selectman Dean Nicastro was concerned about using a town bylaw to gather data.
“That just seems an odd thing to do,” he said. He was also troubled by the breadth of the measure. “It's a fairly broad coverage that's contemplated; it's any rental unit. That's extremely broad.”
The town collects data in many ways because it allows staff to do their job better, said Selectman Seth Taylor, a member of the group that developed the draft bylaw. In this case, the high demand for potable water has serious repercussions in terms of both residents' health and the town's economy.
“There's no single greater health issue than making sure there's an acceptable volume of clean drinking water,” he said. “You could be talking about shutting off the valve of tourism” if that is endangered.
Single-family home rentals may be “the biggest single business” in town right now, Taylor said. The town regulates many industries, he added, using as an example the “enormous amount of fees” commercial fishermen must pay. Seeking a $100 fee to meet the goals of this bylaw is “not an unreasonable or overbearing thing,” he said.
The bylaw would be one “tool in the box” – along with proposed regulations governing lawn irrigation system and the filling of swimming pools – to help address an important town-wide issue, he said.
“The notion that we don't collect data on people is bizarre in the extreme,” Taylor said.
Nicastro said he was also troubled by the suggestion that the registration program would require a new full-time position.
He was also concerned that the board received no recommendation on the proposed bylaw from the board of health, the economic development committee or the water and sewer advisory committee. Luther Bates, chairman of the economic committee, said the group had concerns about how the measure would be implemented and the down-stream costs of administration. They'd like the opportunity to weigh in on it rather than rushing it to town meeting, he said.
Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim agreed, adding that the draft contained no enforcement mechanism or provision for administrative costs.
“I'm not saying throw this away, but it certainly needs to vetted in a lot of different places before it's given more consideration,” he said.
“There's a lot yet to be done,” said Dykens.
The board voted unanimously to refer the draft bylaw to the board of health, economic development committee and water and sewer advisory committee for recommendations to selectmen. Nicastro added that the finance committee should also weigh in, since the proposal has financial implications.