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Dueling short-term rental bylaws will take center stage at Monday’s Great Barrington town meeting following months of debate

People in folding chairs in front of rows of parked cars in a parking lot hold up pink slips to a row of seated people on a stage
Josh Landes
The 2021 Great Barrington, Massachusetts town meeting in the parking lot of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

With the Great Barrington, Massachusetts town meeting on Monday, months of local debate over short-term rental regulation could be settled in a vote between two proposed bylaws.

The New England town meeting is a sacred tradition of direct democracy practiced since the 17th century. When the residents of Great Barrington muster at Monument Mountain Regional High School, they’ll take on a bevy of issues ranging from the rudimentary to the explosive.

“I suppose what should be of great interest is a financial articles because those are always important, but sometimes they become mundane," said selectboard chair Steve Bannon. “There's Community Preservation Act money that goes to important projects in town. That should pique some people's interest. And we can't forget the short-term rental bylaws. That will be the big draw on Monday night.”

The long running and at times dramatic discussion about how to regulate short-term rentals in the community of around 7,000 has yielded two proposals on the town meeting warrant.

“The one bylaw, which was crafted and approved by the selectboard, in a nutshell limits short-term rentals in the neighborhood to one per person or per group, and limited to 150 days total if you don't live there," said Bannon. "If you live there it has much more flexibility. The other one more just puts into registration and slight control on it. Neither is awful. But, you know, I obviously lean towards the one that the selectboard crafted because I really want to protect our wonderful neighborhoods.”

“This started in September of 2021, on the selectboard, planning board housing subcommittee, and we all agreed that there was a housing crisis in Great Barrington, and there was discussion on how we were going to approach that," said selectboard Vice Chair Leigh Davis. “One of the issues that came up in that housing subcommittee with the issue of short-term rentals and the impact it was having on the residential neighborhoods in Great Barrington.”

Davis began drafting bylaw proposals that fall, hoping to protect long-term rentals and shield the town’s limited housing stock from outside investors.

“It went from more restrictive with a primary residence requirement to a 90-day, and then it evolved into a 150-day limit," said Davis. "And that came about following some discussion with citizens that really wanted the opportunity to rent their homes on a seasonal basis. And 150 days represents roughly five months, and what we heard from some neighbors and residents was that they wanted to be able to rent their house two months in the winter and three months in the summer. And this was some way that they felt that they would be able to monetize their investment, which is their home, but also have that balance of deterring investors. So we came to that compromise.”

The discussion has been divisive. Efforts to address the town’s affordability and housing issues have met resistance from some homeowners chafing against the perception that Great Barrington is dictating how they can and can’t use their property.

“There been a lot of misinformation, unfortunately, going around social media and so forth- And some of it coming from the selectboard itself," Davis told WAMC. "We have a member that been against this proposal from day one and that has been revealed as to having a conflict of interest with their domestic partner, their fiancé operating a full-time Airbnb and him providing money to fund that purchase of that property.”

That member is Ed Abrahams, who has been a steadfast opponent of the bylaw throughout.

“My fiancée has done short-term rentals temporarily," he told WAMC. "She would not be affected by the bylaw at all. But I called the Ethics Commission to say, can I participate? They said, yes, just fill out this form, which I did. I've done that, I believe, a dozen times in my eight years on the board. This this time, somebody went anonymously to the papers as if I were hiding something.”

He remains opposed to the selectboard’s proposed bylaw as it appears on the town warrant, citing concerns around cost, enforcement, and ultimate purpose.

“Originally, we were told it was to create housing," said Abrahams. "When it became clear that it wouldn't do that, that this has nothing to do with housing, the proponents say it has nothing to do with housing, although they still talk about it as if it does. The bylaw itself, in the purposes, doesn't mention creating housing. It has nothing to do with housing. So why are we doing it?”

Davis says the bylaw isn’t designed to create new housing, but to address one element of an ongoing crisis.

“This is more so to address the lack of housing and the lack of housing being taken up by short-term rentals, which prevents our workforce from getting a foothold on the property ladder and contributing to this wonderful town,” said the vice chair.

She says the citizens petition version of the bylaw is weak.

“What it does is allows LLCs ,which can be created by corporations as well as individuals, to buy up housing and list in our neighborhoods all year long," said Davis. "So as I say, say goodbye to new neighbors and say hello to mini hotels owned by investors.”

To complicate the matter, Airbnb itself has entered the conversation.

“We were told Airbnb was sending out a letter to hosts in Great Barrington urging them to attend a meeting that we were having and speaking out against the selectboard recommended proposal," Davis told WAMC. "The way that we found out about that is that selectboard members suddenly received many, many emails, form emails, from people with the same subject line, the same copy in their email, urging the Great Barrington selectboard to protect their rights to monetize their property and not to go forward with placing the proposal on the warrant. And interestingly enough, the letter urged us to vote for the citizens petition.”

Many of the form emails shared with WAMC have the subject line “Protect my ability to make ends meet,” a characterization Davis finds misleading.

“When I did a little bit of fact checking in LinkedIn, some of the names came out as very wealthy investors from Florida, New York City and so forth, that I am assuming had property here,” she said.

“I think it's rather interesting, being a lifelong Great Barrington resident, what the some of the selectboard members have been saying all along is that we don't want large corporations taking over our town, whether it's Airbnb or another commercial venture," said Bannon. "And then they come right out and tell people how they should vote and why. And that's the exact reason why we need a bylaw.”

Abrahams says he’s been disheartened by the tenor of the conversation.

“As far as I can tell, the bulk of the criticisms have been against people," he told WAMC. "At first it was me for a conflict, or, sorry, of an appearance of a conflict that I disclosed. Then it was against, the last one was against, saying that Airbnb is doing this, evil corporations are coming in- You know, when I was in debate club, they called that an ad hominem attack, and you didn't do it because it meant you didn't have an argument.”

Even still, Bannon remains optimistic about the meeting.

“My global thought is that this is just a microcosm of the way things are happening throughout the country," he told WAMC. "And what I hope to happen, and I have faith in our townspeople, is that we have a good civil discussion on which bylaw, if any, is the most appropriate. What saddens me is when there is less, there is no really good discussion, but more sniping. And I've I always lived by, there can be disagreement without disrespect. And I have faith that our townspeople will come forward with that type of thought.”

Town meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday in the Monument Mountain Regional High School parking lot.

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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