In West Newbury, controversy over 'Airbnb' rentals

Rooms in this home in West Newbury are rented out through a popular online service called Airbnb, one of several homes in the area that rent out rooms through the website. It’s created some controversy in the neighborhood, and has spurred selectmen to discuss the practice townwide.

WEST NEWBURY — Complaints from neighbors over the rental of a Norino Drive home prompted town leaders to take a closer look at regulations governing lodging houses and bed and breakfast establishments in West Newbury.

The issue also casts some light on an online service called “Airbnb,” through which homeowners can earn extra income by renting rooms in their house, or even renting the entire home. The popular website lists dozens of rooms and homes for rent throughout the Newburyport area, and has quickly become an alternative for tourists seeking places to say overnight, or for a vacation.

Selectmen will be discussing the issue further at their next meeting on June 13 and invite interested residents to attend and voice their concerns.

On April 19, Town Counsel Michael McCarron issued a letter to Colin Hodges, 15 Norino Drive, notifying him that he needed to apply for a lodging house license from local authorities if he wished to continue listing his home on Airbnb. The website shows Hodges and his wife rent two rooms in their home at about $100 per night, and a spacious suite for $220 per night. The large Mediterranean-style home overlooking the Merrimack River, located at the end of a dead-end road, has earned numerous positive reviews from guests.

The state Department of Public Health has determined that “lodging provided through Airbnb or similar online services is subject to local licensure or permitting as a lodging house or bed and breakfast in the same manner as traditional lodging houses and bed and breakfast establishments are licensed or permitted.” The statement is part of a memo issued from Paul Halfmann of DPH to local boards of health and code enforcement agencies in May 2014.

That same day, three of Hodges’ neighbors — Stu Miller, 14 Norino Drive, and Jim and Cheryl Ward, 18 Norino Drive — sent emails to the Board of Selectmen and other town officials complaining about ongoing rental activity at Hodge’s home in the form of a bed and breakfast.

Miller reported that a website advertising Hodges home is promoting “a fully booked season” including an event that will host 50 guests over one weekend. In addition he wrote that the home was also a main location for a food co-operative for United Natural Foods Incorporated. According to Miller, neighbors have been dealing with transients and deliveries coming onto their properties, backup alarms on vehicles sounding late at night, cars parked on the lawn and lining the street, speeding vehicles, and 18-wheel trucks delivering food in the residential neighborhood. He noted that according to the website, the home is boasting that it sleeps 20 and is “an ideal accommodation for large groups” with parking for cars, RVs and boats, and room for pets.

“The owners of the B&B have heard of the neighborhood displeasure and I heard they are planning on coming in for a permit this week,” Miller wrote, “They have been operating without permits in non-compliance of the town’s bylaws for the past two years, which makes it hard for me to believe that any permits would be issued.”

The Wards echoed Miller’s complaint, stating that Hodges has “clearly been violating all sorts of sensible rules and regulations and there should be no reward for that.”

On April 27 Hodges applied for a lodging house license for 6,000 square feet of his 10,000 square-foot home, calling it “Villa Sojourn on the Merrimack”.

In an opinion issued to selectmen on May 26, Building Inspector Glenn Clohecy stated that under the town’s zoning bylaws B&Bs are allowed “as a matter of right” as long as the establishment conforms with the following definition:

“A house, or portion thereof, where up to four lodging rooms, with meals are provided, providing that the maximum duration of any tenant shall not exceed 15 days. The operator shall live on the premises or in an adjacent premises immediately abutting the residence with the bed and breakfast facility.” Clohecy also noted that under state building codes there is an allowable occupant load of two people per bedroom — or an eight-person maximum. The property should not be used for any non-residential purposes, he stated.

Clohecy went on to stress that the zoning bylaw “only establishes the fact that a bed and breakfast is an allowed use.” Because a lodging permit falls under the jurisdiction of selectmen, Clohecy felt that was “a perfect opportunity to set limits on its use.” He also suggested changing the zoning bylaw to require a special permit from the Planning Board as a way to make sure “the town is aware of the use before it happens.”

Selectman David Archibald noted that there were numerous other similar type lodgings being offered on Airbnb through out the town — and by the looks of it, they were being used quite frequently.

“We want to get a handle on this,” said Selectman Glenn Kemper, “This is popular and we’re getting complaints about one that’s in town — and I think they’re pretty valid. It takes over a neighborhood. You buy a nice house and all of a sudden it’s the Days Inn.” He suggested inviting Hodges and the Norino Drive neighbors to an upcoming meeting.

Selectmen Chairman Joe Anderson proposed contacting other similar properties to notify them that they were in violation, while the board determines what kinds of reasonable restrictions to place on a lodging house license.

“We’re not trying to prevent this,” Kemper stressed.

“We just want to make sure it’s regulated,” agreed Anderson.

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