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Great Barrington select board in the heat of short-term rental bylaw debate

The Great Barrington, Massachusetts select board and town officials at the January 31st, 2022 virtual meeting.
Josh Landes
Town of Great Barrington
The Great Barrington, Massachusetts select board and town officials at the January 31st, 2022 virtual meeting.

As May’s annual town meeting approaches, the Great Barrington, Massachusetts select board is debating the terms of a short-term rental bylaw.

Member Ed Abrahams served as the body’s vocal minority in the ongoing conversation at Monday night’s virtual meeting. He pushed for the bylaw to be treated not as a general bylaw but as a zoning bylaw, prompting frustration from fellow member Leigh Davis.

“Why are you trying to make it into a zoning bylaw once, after the planning board has already given it back to us and [is] recommending a general bylaw and our town council has confirmed it's a general bylaw?" she asked. "So why are you at the last minute switching it back to a zoning bylaw? We, as it's written, it can be a general bylaw. So what do you, why are you throwing roadblocks in right now? What is your purpose for doing this?”

“There are things in here we treat the same in all districts that I don't think of it ought to be treated the same in all districts, because the districts are different," responded Abrahams. "We really get into the minutiae of what people can do with their homes here. Sometimes it might make sense in a residential district where houses are close together in a way it doesn't make sense in a district where houses are far apart or where there's dentist offices across the street or where there are a law office and things like that.”

Davis disagreed.

“This is something that's going to impact the entire town, not just residential, not just zones,” she said.

A vote determined that it would be treated as a general bylaw moving forward, with Abrahams the only “no” vote.

Another issue was the bylaw’s definition of owner and operator of a short-term rental. Davis offered one.

“Any person who alone or severally with others has legal or equitable title or a beneficial interest in any dwelling unit, a mortgagee in possession, or agent, trustee or other person appointed by the courts," read Davis. "A person whose sole interest in any building, dwelling unit, or portion thereof is solely that of a leasee under a lease agreement shall not be considered an owner.”

Abrahams also objected to that.

“My objection, which I'm going to keep bringing up, is we're micromanaging what people can do with their homes," he said. "So to tell me that my spouse can't handle this, can't manage the short-term rental in the house we live in together because his or her name isn't on the lease, that seems to be micromanaging what someone does with their home- And unnecessarily.”

Davis again disagreed.

“I think that this is a matter of accountability and transparency," she countered. "And we need to be able to attach an owner of a property that's a person that's on the deed to the ability to operate a short-term rental. So I think that we- Once we get through this a little bit farther, we could add in the distinction about a tenant not being able to operate a short term rental.”

Davis said she is defending Great Barrington residents from outside investors who could further stoke the town’s housing crisis by commercializing residences for short-term rentals.

“Someone that owns, like an investor, for instance, that doesn't live on the property that rents it to a long-term tenant and then they turn around and short-term rental," she said. "So it's this lack of accountability and transparency that we're creating. And so once you enable an investor to turn around and do a long-term rental than they, in turn, use a short-term rental, you're taking that option, you're taking an ability for a resident to actually have a home away, because we're going against the purpose and intent of deterring this commercial activity.”

As for how many days to cap short-term rentals at, Davis – with the backing of fellow member Garfield Reed – pushed to keep the number at 90.

“If we keep extending the limits, you're making it easier for investors to, you're incentivizing them to come in and take properties off the market," said Davis. "And we have zero rentals, long-term rentals right now. We have over 200 short-term rentals, we have 171 entire homes that are being short-term rentals right now. We have zero long-term rentals.”

Abrahams again disagreed.

“You have no idea how many houses have been purchased that are year-round but short-term rentals where a long-term tenant was kicked out," he said. "We don't have that number. We've made that up that there is a number.”

“We do have a person that did write in, and they're an attorney in New York, and they have written, and we have this on record, about the 20 tenants that have come to her since May of 2021 that have specifically lost their homes due to evictions to make room for short-term rentals," responded Davis. "So we actually have records of that.”

The Great Barrington select board will again take on the town’s short-term rental bylaw at its Feb. 14th meeting.

Town meeting, when voters will ultimately reject or accept the finalized bylaw, is scheduled for May 2nd.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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