After hearing from concerned residents during Tuesday’s meeting, and in letters and emails, the City Council decided that Watertown’s regulations on short-term rentals (i.e. Airbnb) need more refinement.
The issue has been discussed for a number of years and a set of draft regulations came before the Council Tuesday night. Currently, short-term rentals are not allowed in the Watertown Zoning Ordinance, however dozens of homes and rooms — if not more than 100 — can be found on websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo.
The proposal would allow three types of short term rentals: entire homes, a unit in a multi-family home, or a bedroom in a residence (up to three bedrooms in a home can be rented but the owner must be in one of the other bedrooms), said Acting Deputy City Manager Steve Magoon. Also, renters could lease their units as short-term rentals with the permission of the property owner.
The regulations were reviewed and voted on favorably by the Planning Board in November. They recommended a maximum occupancy of two people per bedroom, and five bedrooms or 10 occupants, whichever is fewest.
“It is an accessory use. It is not meant to be a replacement for the primary use (residential),” Magoon said. “I think that is important because it eliminates the commercial entities that buy up a number of properties and simply use them as short-term rentals.”
Short-term rental units would have to be registered and inspected, with the registration needing to be renewed every five years. A home cannot be rented for more than 31 consecutive days, but there is no minimum number of nights per stay.
Complaints will be made to the Department of Community Development and Planning, or in an emergency to public safety departments (police and fire). Violations can result in a warning or a ticket with a fine. One or more tickets will result in denying use of the residence for short-term rentals for six months. Tickets can be given for renting an ineligible unit, excessive noise, improper trash disposal, disorderly conduct, failing to provide parking information, or failure to pay excise or surcharges to the City.
Several residents commented during the meeting, some of whom have already had bad experiences with short-term rentals on their street.
Susanne Demis said the home next to hers has become a short-term rental, and the experience has not been a good one. She shares a driveway with the home that is used as a short-term rental, and the renters go in and out an entrance that is about 13 feet from her door.
“My biggest issue is I have two minor children living in my home,” Demis said. “I have problems with tenants using my trash, and grilling at 11 o’clock at night with a flashlight pointing right into my son’s bedroom until 2 in the morning.”
Resident Joan Gumbleton wrote an email, which was read aloud, saying that Watertown is a small city that is densely populated, and she worries about “strangers coming and going on the streets on a regular basis.”
“I know it has been accepted in some cities, but we are not a big city with big tourist interests,” Gumbleton said. “We are already a congested city with parking and have small lots not conducive for adding more parking spaces. We do not want to add more cars to the street when the parking ban is lifted.”
The short-term rentals would be allowed to have more occupants than a unit being leased on a long-term basis, said resident Elodia Thomas. She rents part of her home and is limited to four unrelated people, but she would be able to rent to nine people under the proposed short-term rental regulations.
In an effort to reduce the impact of short-term rentals on neighborhoods, resident David Leon suggested that the maximum number of guests be limited to six guests, at most.
Resident Dean Martino agreed that Watertown’s streets cannot take more cars parking on them, and worries about trash piling up and causing rodent issues if short-term tenants do not put out trash. He said that the City could use its current rules to limit some of the impacts.
“I suggest letting parking regulations regulate the rentals. Enforce what’s on the books,” Martino said. “We have a 1 a.m to 5 a.m parking ban — enforce it year round. We have a two hour limit on parking in residential streets. Enforce that.”
Resident Maryann Mulligan looked at how other communities in the area regulate short-term rentals. She liked the approach that Lexington has taken, including limiting the number of cars to one per every two guests, requiring units to be inspected every year, and requiring them to meet fire and safety regulations. In Barnstable, she added, guests must rent a home or room for a minimum of three nights.
Former East End Councilor Angeline Kounelis said she has heard many complaints about short-term rentals in her former district.
“It is a bad situation,” Kounelis said. “If you follow the trends, is the use improving the quality of life in neighborhoods? I can tell you, no.”
More Discussion Needed
Multiple people asked the Council to postpone its decision on short-term rentals in Watertown.
Before the Council discussed the proposal, Council President Mark Sideris recommended that the issue be studied further. He noted that, because the discussion started several years ago, and then delayed by COVID-19, the public may not have heard about the proposals and had a chance to weigh in.
“I think that we have all been contacted by several people, and we heard tonight quite a few things need to be addressed and I don’t think this is the appropriate place to address them,” Sideris said.
He recommended that the short-term rental ordinance be referred to the Rules & Ordinances Committee to discuss issues brought up at the meeting, and others they might not have thought about.
The Council voted unanimously to refer the short-term rental regulations to the Committee on Rules & Ordinances. Sideris said he is not sure when the full Council will discuss it again, because it is not clear how long it will take the Committee to study the issue.
See the draft ordinance and staff report on short term rentals by clicking here (starts on page 26.)