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After Two-Year Trial, Ledyard Debates New Approach to Short-Term Rentals

LEDYARD –The town is debating how to regulate short-term rentals – like those advertised by AirBnB and VRBO – after a two-year experimental ordinance fell short of expectations. The ordinance expires at the end of February to widespread agreement that the current rules lack teeth to sufficiently address neighbors’ concerns about party rentals and absentee landlords.

Town Councilor Andra Ingalls said that when the ordinance was implemented, the town council had been studying how other towns were regulating short-term rentals. The professional advice from the town attorney at the time was that it would be better as an ordinance, she said. 

“We knew we were on a big learning curve, as was every municipality, so we chose to go forward with an ordinance that includes a sunset clause after two years,” Ingalls said. “We did that to force ourselves to look at the lessons learned. So here we are now, trying to figure out the best path forward.”

The current debate centers around whether to continue using an ordinance but improve the enforcement mechanism, or opt instead to regulate short-term returns with zoning.The Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission have until the end of February to make a decision, and members of both bodies expect to discuss the issue at meetings in January.

Mike Cherry, the town’s zoning enforcement officer, said that the way the current ordinance is written, property owners advertising short-term rentals are required to have a permit, but there is no penalty if they fail to comply – a loophole that benefits landlords who fail to comply with the rules.

“If you have a permit, and you violate the noise or parking or subletting – any of the requirements in the ordinance – the permit can be revoked,” Cherry said. “But if you’re running a short term rental without a permit, the only option the ordinance leaves is for the enforcement official to commence legal action.”

According to Cherry, because town officials didn’t foresee anyone operating a short-term rental without a permit, they didn’t create rules that would stop a property owner from operating a rental without one. Under existing rules, property owners are not subject to fines if they lack a permit, and they can’t lose what was never granted.

As of December, the town was aware of 8 homes advertised on AirBNB without a permit, and three with a permit.

Eric Treaster, a member of the Ledyard Zoning Board of Appeals, said that “commencing legal action” against a permitless host would entail a costly legal process for the town.

That enforcement limbo appears to have created a few situations where problem rentals are able to operate unchecked, disturbing neighbors in Ledyard’s quiet, wooded residential communities. 

A local resident, David Muolo, told the Planning and Zoning Commission at a recent meeting that a neighboring house had been operating as an unpermitted short-term rental, and has repeatedly violated regulations without any enforcement.

Muolo said that the house has been occupied almost every weekend since April. On  Thanksgiving, he said that he counted nine cars staying overnight, and he counted 15 cars on another occasion. Muolo told commision members that renters had been loud and disruptive until 2 or 3 in the morning. 

“The town said, ‘you can’t have a permit,’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll just rent it without a permit,’” Muolo said. “And he’ll continue to do so until [the town fixes the regulations], because then they’ll have some teeth to it.”

Pam Bartlett, a resident of the town, said she was worried Ledyard and other small towns would lose a sense of community if neighborhoods are bought by corporations for rentals. 

“There’s going to be no neighborhoods, there aren’t going to be homes available for families that want to live in a neighborhood,” Bartlett said. “I don’t think this was the intention at all of what AirBNB wanted to be. It was meant to be hosted in small villages where there weren’t enough rooms for people to visit a unique place and learn about it, and meet the people who live there and feel like a part of the community. It’s turned into a profit engine and it’s just eroding neighborhoods and communities.”

Why an ordinance?

Two alternatives to the current rules are under discussion.

One is to continue regulating short-term rentals  by ordinance, but add provisions to penalize noncompliance. The other, proposed by Treaster, is to create a new zoning regulation for short-term rentals.

According to Ingalls, for most towns there are three key goals for short-term rental regulations: allowing residential property owners to take advantage of the short-term rental market, reducing the issue of party rentals, and preventing commercial businesses from buying up residential housing stock for short-term rentals.

“So part of the question is, how are we going to enforce it. And the thought a couple of years ago was that the party house problems are going to happen over the weekend when the zoning enforcement officer isn’t in the office, so people are going to call the police if there’s going to be a disturbance,” Ingalls said. “So that was why we were leaning towards an ordinance. But now we’re having enforcement issues anyway.”

Cherry said the problems with the first ordinance partly come from the lack of guidance that was available on regulating short-term rentals at the time. They didn’t envision people not bothering to get permits, or that people wouldn’t strive to comply with regulations after being told they were out of compliance.

If there are issues at a short-term rental that leads the neighbors to complain, Cherry said they try to address it immediately. In some cases, the owner didn’t realize there was an ordinance or that they needed a permit. Some of those decided they didn’t want to bother with a short-term rental at all when they learned that, but others have been more problematic, Cherry said – especially absentee landlords who don’t actually live in the houses.

Could zoning regulations help?

Kevin Dombrowski, chair of the Ledyard Town Council, which has been discussing a revised ordinance in its Administration Committee, said the council was still debating the relative merits of zoning and an ordinance. But Dombrowski said that he has always been in favor of regulating short-term rentals with zoning, and that a consensus appears to be coalescing in that direction.

Although in 2020 the advice of the town attorney was for an ordinance, the new Town Planner Juliet Hodge is now recommending a zoning regulation as easier to enforce.

“It’s just a more tried-and-true process,” Hodge said. “And if you’re going to have the zoning official be the person enforcing it, it makes sense to enforce it in a way they’re used to.”

If the Town Council did opt again for an ordinance, she said, the new ordinance would need provisions for enforcement, including fines and citations. Hodge said it might be simpler to regulate short-term rentals by a special zoning permit more enforceable than the current permit.

“If it’s in zoning, and they don’t have a permit, you can right off the bat issue a cease and desist, and you can also call them into a public hearing and decide whether you should take away their special permit,” Hodge said. “So it has that second layer that doesn’t involve legal fees to take away the permit.”

Hodge said that through zoning the town can add supplemental regulations, like requiring a designated parking space for the renter so nobody is parking along the street, or restricting pets or outdoor music. If the owner or their renter violates a requirement, the town can simply hold a hearing and revoke the special permit, Hodge said.

“If they continue to operate, even though their permit was revoked, you have the traditional zoning route and can get them to court within a couple months – and you can fine them if they continue,” Hodge said.

Treaster said one of the benefits of the zoning approach would be that the state would pay the expenses if a cease-and-desist order was challenged in court.

Ingalls said that whichever approach the town eventually takes, she wanted to make sure that there would be a requirement that the property was that person’s primary residence. Hodge agreed that was an important piece of the proposal, given the impact on the town if houses are bought to serve primarily as short-term rentals.

Treaster’s proposal would allow only “hosted” short-term rentals in residential areas – meaning the owners are still on the property while renting out a room or accessory dwelling unit. If the owner is on-site, Treaster reasoned, the renter would be less likely to throw loud parties or do anything else that would disrupt neighbors or violate town regulations.

“If guests do begin to create a problem, the resident hosts will know immediately and can quickly intervene to maintain order before the neighbors are disturbed,” Treaster said at a recent planning and zoning meeting.

Cherry said he has received phone calls from real estate agents who are not local, asking about the rules for short-term rentals in Ledyard. That led him to believe there are people looking to buy single-family homes in Ledyard to use mainly as short-term rentals, he said. 

“That’s something very different from a next-door neighbor,” said Ingalls.

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