The boom in short-term rentals in recent years has made it possible for just about anyone to play small-scale innkeeper, and maybe make some money off junior’s old bedroom.
With temporary housing suddenly popping up all over, towns are playing catch-up with their regulations.
A turn of phrase
Last week, during a panel discussion about short-term rentals, Stowe town planner Tom Jackman said people with second homes in Stowe have been renting out their places for decades.
“It was accepted, even though they weren’t permitted as lodging, they were permitted as residential units,” he said at the panel, held at Stowe Bowl.
Fast forward to around 2017, and Jackman started fielding questions about Airbnb and HomeAway and the like, and was being sent stories from other resort towns around the country and how they were dealing with short-term rentals.
He went on one of the rental sites and saw, at one point, around 500 listings in Stowe. It wasn’t easy to even see who the property owners were, just based on listings on HomeAway and Airbnb.
But there was a problem.
“I was like, ‘holy cow,’” he said. “And I realized that pretty much all of them were in violation of the zoning regulations.”
Stowe’s regulations said residential units could only be rented out weekly, monthly, or longer. That was fine for landlords who rent out apartments, or people who rent their homes for the summer. Not so much for someone who wants a place for the weekend.
“We realized that there was no way that we were going to be able to try to enforce 500 zoning regulations,” Jackman said. “If we did, it would probably create quite a ruckus in town.”
So, two years ago the town held a community forum, targeting a lot of people in the property game — lodging owners, Realtors and more. It was standing room only, one of the biggest forums Jackman’s ever seen in the town hall.
The main concerns at that forum involved regulatory issues, such as fire safety, taxes and insurance. The town was poised to amend its zoning bylaws to address those issues, but held off when the state Legislature almost simultaneously took up short-term rentals, and passed laws dealing with those regulatory issues.
All Stowe needed to do was to tweak the definition of “residential” on its books, by taking out the “weekly, monthly or longer” phrasing for rental property.
“So, by taking that phrase out, we solved all 500 zoning violations,” Jackman said.
Now, at the local level, the town doesn’t really regulate short-term rentals. The town zoning office would likely require a permit if a property owner built an addition onto a house, and add some conditions about its use.
More in Morristown
Morristown is also dealing with zoning issues for short-term rentals. The town planning council figures the number of short-term rental properties has increased 28 percent so far from last year. There are more than 100 short-term rental options in town, with a median nightly rent of $217.
Zoning administrator Todd Thomas told the council there is software that can track this kind of data and automate the regulation efforts. The planning council discussed levying an annual per short-term rental unit registration fee of $200 to fund that software, but didn’t act on it.
One woman at the meeting said she has both an owner-occupied and a non-owner-occupied short-term rental. The revenue has helped her family financially, she said, and her guests visit local businesses. She said the vacancy rate at one of her rentals was only about 25 percent.
Airbnb recently released county-by-county data showing that Lamoille County homeowners brought in the second-most lodging revenue in Vermont, behind Chittenden County. Most of that came from people staying in Stowe, who tended to spend more than visitors in other parts of the state.
The data suggests that out-of-towners were paying more to stay in Lamoille County than anywhere else in Vermont: $174.16 per guest per night, on average, almost $30 more than in Chittenden County.
A quick perusal through Airbnb website offerings bear this out. A search for properties in the Stowe/Morristown area on a recent weekend showed roughly 300 available. The vast majority of them were in Stowe, and most were well over $100 per night.