CHATHAM — Following the recommendation of the working group it created to study the idea, the select board Tuesday lent its support to a plan to let the board of health regulate short-term rentals in town starting in the 2024 summer season.
Owners would pay an annual $50 fee and fill out an application providing details of the number of approved bedrooms in a rental along with information on available parking, smoke and CO detectors and rubbish removal. The working group is recommending that the town establish a central database for the information as well as complaints about seasonal rentals.
The group made its recommendations to the select board Jan. 17. On a 4-1 vote Tuesday with member Michael Schell dissenting, the select board approved the recommendation and remanded the regulation to the health board to hold a public hearing. The regulations would also need to be reviewed by town counsel before taking effect.
Based on a bylaw developed in Orleans, the proposed regulations require owners who rent a dwelling unit for less than 31 consecutive calendar days to register with the health board. The program is an attempt to address complaints about overcrowding of summer rentals which can disrupt neighborhoods and create concern about overburdening of septic systems.
Orleans voters declined to adopt a short-term rental bylaw at last October's special town meeting. The working group decided to take a different approach by placing the program under the board of health, which can adopt regulations without town meeting approval. The board must hold a public hearing prior to adopting the program.
Under the regulations endorsed by the working group last week, the program would go into effect on March 1, 2024, and would be reviewed every three years.
Only working group member Luther Bates voted against recommending the regulations to the select board. He praised the work of the group and said he was not objecting to the content, but rather to a shift the regulation represents in determining the occupancy of a dwelling. The regulation sets occupancy limits at two persons per bedroom, plus an additional two occupants. Under current zoning and health regulations, there are no specific occupancy limits. The health board regulates the number of bedrooms in a dwelling unit based on the size of the septic system or, for those properties on sewer, what would be allowed for the lot based on septic regulations. There is no restriction on the number of people who can occupy a bedroom.
“The determination [of occupancy] should be made by the entire town,” Bates said.
Schell said that while he agrees to the regulation in principle, he believes more time should be spent collecting data before putting the new rules in place. He said some of the wording in the proposed regulation appears to have been rushed.
But the majority of the board supported advancing the regulation as a means of responding to community concerns about short-term rentals. Key to the success of the project is its three-year review, board member Cory Metters said.
“In that time, we’re going to collect data to basically verify that we’re taking the right action,” he said.
Exactly how much the program will cost is uncertain; in the draft budget for the next fiscal year, the health department is seeking a full-time staff member to oversee it. Initially a $125 registration fee was included in the draft regulations, which officials thought would cover the cost of a person to administer the program and conduct inspections. Some working group members, however, thought that was too much, considering the program's full cost probably won't be known until it is implemented.
Member Warren Chane also noted that the expansion of the state occupancy tax to include short-term rentals has generated some $1.7 million in new revenue for the town. That money could be tapped rather than requiring a fee, he said.
Working group members, however, agreed to reduce the fee to $50. With the estimated 1,300 short-term rentals in town, the fee would generate $65,000, which would cover the cost of the initial startup of the program. Once it is up and running, an assessment can be done to determine the full cost of the program.
Working group member Nils Vaule urged town officials to communicate the details of the program to residents and property owners clearly and transparently.
“The public relations part of this can't be overstated,” he said. Health Agent Judith Giorgio said a web page would be set up to describe the program and its requirements, and short-term rental owners could download applications and affidavits via the town's website.
Group members said eventually they would like to see long-term rentals included in the program, but getting a handle on short-term rentals remains the priority.
“This is not a one-fix-for-everything,” Metters said. “This is a piece of the puzzle.”
Alan Pollock contributed to this story.