What do a rustic cabin close to Burlington, a spacious and elegant home on a golf course and a private suite within minutes of “beer worth finding” have in common? Two things, turns out: They all describe rental properties in the town of Essex on the popular home-sharing app, AirBnB. And they are all out of step with the town’s zoning regulations.
In the eyes of the town, people renting through AirBnB are essentially using their homes as a commercial business, and must therefore seek approvals from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, zoning administrator Sharon Kelley told The Reporter last week.
“It’s not any different in my mind than the bed and breakfast, which we have been regulating for many years,” Kelley said.
Kelley has tried to spread the message through several Front Porch Forum postings over the last year and said she plans to ramp up outreach efforts moving forward. But while more than a half-dozen current Essex rental properties were listed on the home-sharing website last week, the zoning board issued its first-ever permit for a proposed AirBnB earlier this month, and the rest remain in violation.
If that includes you, don’t panic: Kelley said she doesn’t plan to issue violations right away, instead hoping to work with the owners to get them permitted.
Even then, she said she isn’t planning a compliance expedition any time soon. “I don’t know where they are and I’m but one person,” she said, noting the only way a certain property will come to her attention is if she receives a complaint.
If a property owner ignores the request, however, Kelley said she will issue an official violation. That will force the owner to either comply with the rules or appeal the decision; either way, they have to go before the zoning board, prompting the same $150 fee property owners must pay when seeking a permit in the first place.
Of course, there’s a third option: ignore the violation, too. But Kelley called the “worst case scenario,” as it could eventually land property owners in civil court.
Municipal manager Evan Teich said the village is also concerned about the “proliferation” of AirBnBs and suggested residents there interested in short-term rentals contact the municipality.
Essex is far from Vermont’s first town to seek more control over short-term rentals. Last month, Seven Days detailed similar efforts in Burlington, where the city has issued only 17 permits to date, with officials acknowledging many more remain under the radar.
The city has seen some benefits, receiving a little over $60,000 from AirBnB in the first half of this year thanks to the city’s local option tax, Seven Days reports.
Vermont has also seen benefits as a whole: AirBnB collects and delivers a state meals and rooms tax as part of a 2016 agreement reached with the state’s tax department, and the company reported paying the state nearly $8 million in tax revenue over the following two years.
It’s unclear how many AirBnBs are within town borders. The Vt. Tax Department received data from AirBnB earlier this year showing about 20 hosts operating in Essex, though less than 10 short-term rental operators have registered with the tax department as required by law, a number that could also include non-AirBnB operations.
While AirBnB has been steadily rising in popularity over the past few years, the issue resurfaced on the town’s radar this summer when a resident informed Kelley of plans to demolish and reconstruct a single-family residence on Lost Nation Road and eventually list the property on AirBnB.
Regulating short-term rentals benefits both the town and neighbors, Kelley said. Staff, who have no idea how many of these rental units are in town, will know where the properties are located. And neighbors will now be alerted whenever someone is seeking to use their home as a short-term rental unit, since the approval process requires applicants to notify abutters.
But because zoning regulations make no mention of short-term rental units like AirBnB, Kelley contacted the town attorney to reaffirm the town’s permitting role. The attorney pointed to a clause that gives leeway to unspecified property uses if they are consistent with the “philosophy” of the regulations and would similarly impact on abutting properties.
Applications under this unspecified use category must undergo a conditional use review, where the zoning board considers the project’s impact on municipal services, character of the area, traffic, use and availability of renewable resources and whether it complies with all local ordinances.
Since nearly all AirBnB providers use existing residential buildings, the criteria are minor impediments, Kelley said. “Basically, it’s going to be pretty easy to get an AirBnB through the approval process,” she said.