Planning Board Supports Having Limited Short Term Rentals in Watertown

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The question of whether to allow homes in Watertown to be used as short term rentals, such as Airbnb and VRBO, has been discussed for several years. It took a step toward being a reality when the Planning Board recommended that the City Council adopt a Zoning ordinance that adds short term rentals as an allowed use. The amendment, however, would limit who could offer short term rentals and for how long.

The amendment sent to the Planning Board on March 13 changed significantly from the one that it saw in 2021, said Larry Field, a Senior Planner in the Department of Community Development and Planning.

Two types of short term rentals would be allowed, a home share (when one, or more, bedroom is rented out while the owner is present) and a whole home rental (when the owner is not present).

The amendment requires that the property being rented be owner’s primary residence.

“They must live there nine months out of 12,” Field said. “It must be documented by two forms of evidence, and after that the amendment allows the (Community Development and Planning) Department to ask for additional documents to corroborate what has been provided.”

Part or all of a home may only be used as a short term rental for 3 months of the year. In addition, people are not allowed to run a short term rental in adjacent units in a multi-family home, such as half of a two family or an accessory (mother-in-law) unit.

Rentals are limited to two people per bedroom up to five bedrooms, and an overall limit of 10 people per property.

A public registry of the short term rentals would be created, and notice will be sent to abutters living within 300 feet of a newly registered short term rental, Field said. If approved, the City Council will develop a set of regulations which will include enforcement and a penalty process. The penalties for violating the regulations include suspension of the short term rental license, Field said.

Public Discussion

Several residents spoke out against allowing short term rentals in Watertown during the Planning Board meeting, including multiple from Falmouth Road where they have had problems with a short term rental. A few residents supported the idea of allowing short term rentals.

Among the issues raised by residents are the fear of people coming in and having parties or causing disturbances at a short term rental. They also believe that more cars would be parked on the streets around the property. Some worried that having a home nearby that is on the short term rental registry could negatively impact their property value.

Those who have had bad experiences with short term rentals said they have been frustrated by the lack of action by City officials when they have complained, and have concerns that this would continue if the amendment passes and they are officially sanctioned. Others don’t like the fact that a resident would have to contact the owner, or call Police, or the City’s Code Enforcement Department to complain about a neighbor’s property, and the potential result of a fallout in neighbor relations.

A speaker worried about short term rentals taking units off the market for full-time renters in a market where there is a shortage of housing.

Those supporting the short term rentals said it allows residents to make some money from their property, and to participate in the “sharing economy.”

Planning Board Debate

Members of the Planning Board said they liked the new version of the short term rental amendment, which addresses items like having a private company or absentee landlord running one or more short term rentals all-year long. They also believe it will help deal with the current problems that residents have experienced.

Planning Board Chair Janet Buck said, “If we don’t adopt this it isn’t going to make anything go away. I feel like what we are faced with is either creating a framework for enforcement and regulating or letting things go as they are.”

Planning Board Member Jason Cohen said he does not believe that allowing short term rentals will “open the floodgates” of new homes being listed on Airbnb or other sites. He believes the new regulations will help improve the situation.

“It is already happening. It is happening whether we want to acknowledge it or not,” he said. “We can either choose to ignore it or we can choose to regulate it, and I am 100 percent in favor of acknowledging that we have a problem and see what we can do to regulate it and make it better.”

He added that the fees from the short term rentals would pay for staff to enforce the regulations, and Planning Board member Abigail Hammett added that enforcement is currently that is being paid for with tax-payer funds.

The Planning Board asked Field whether more staff would be hired to deal with short term rentals. He said the funding and staffing would be decided by the City Council when they make the City’s annual budget.

Planning Board member Rachael Sack said the new rules would only be as good as how they are enforced, but she believes most short term rentals are not a problem.

“A little education could be great. Clearly there are cases of activities that shouldn’t exist. I don’t think people know what is allowed or even what to do about it. On the other side, we also need to feel like something can be done about it and it will not take forever. I think if we lose the confidence of the citizens that is the biggest detriment to the process,” Sack said. “I support more structure, more accountability, and transparency; both for the owners who might be opting into this and also for the residents who may be impacted. Hopefully they will not. I do believe in most cases you do not see extreme situations but I do know there are these outliers and we need the tools to deal with them.”

Hammett said that some people may want to rent out their home on a short term basis to help pay their mortgage. She also has used short term rentals when she traveled with her family.

“Short term rental and Airbnb is typically how my family travels. I have small children and so when we travel it is helpful for us to stay in a place that has a kitchen, and has a bathtub,” Hammett said “We often travel with my parents, so there are six of us. We need a big place to stay. Staying at a hotel can be prohibitively expensive. This is more affordable. We can cook meals at home and can give the kids a bath.”

The Board discussed possibly reducing the maximum number of occupants of a short term rental to eight or six people, but did not take action.

The Planning Board voted 4-0 (Payson Whitney was not present) to recommend that the City Council approve the zoning amendments defining and regulating short term rentals. Also they recommended the Council allow the Department of Community Development and Planning to develop and adopt “a schedule of reasonable fees to cover the cost of administration of this section” of the Watertown Zoning Code.

The next step for the short term rentals amendment is for the City Council to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal.

5 thoughts on “Planning Board Supports Having Limited Short Term Rentals in Watertown

  1. The scale on which short-term rentals are operating is increasing and posing problems not just in urban areas, but in suburban residential areas, too. One obvious drawback of short-term rentals is a decrease in long-term housing availability. Horror stories of tenants being evicted from their apartments to make way for permanent short-term vacation rentals are common all over the country. The scarcity this causes will likely contribute to increasing housing and rental prices.

    Take Los Angeles. Recently, a published report showed the relationship between short-term rentals and LA’s affordable housing crisis. It revealed that the density of Airbnb listings overlapped with higher rental prices and lower rental vacancy.

    Residents who are neighbors of short-term rentals are pushing back against the use in cities and towns of all sizes across the nation. They complain about trash, parking problems, and noise disturbances, among some of the issues associated with short-term rentals. This is forcing local governments like Watertown’s to deal with the difficult task of regulating short-term rentals in a way that protects neighborhoods while balancing a homeowner’s property rights.

    Municipalities like the substantial economic benefits that short-term rentals have the potential to yield. It’s up to Watertown’s City Council to draft effective and enforceable regulations to protect residents, neighborhood character, and housing availability. Unfortunately, many residents have little confidence that Watertown’s elected officials, the development and planning people, and the city manager care a whit about their interests, having confirmed so often with respect to development issues that it’s all about the money and hang the tiresome complainers.

  2. Short term rentals is one of the major contributors to the national housing crisis. Short term rentals are owned and used by people with disposable income leaving people already struggling with housing costs at a greater disadvantage.

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