Opposition to Fairlee short-term rental ordinance prompts special Town Meeting

David Adams, of Fairlee, Vt., collected signatures to petition the town to hold a special meeting after the selectboard approved a short-term rental ordinance in November. Adams was at his home on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

David Adams, of Fairlee, Vt., collected signatures to petition the town to hold a special meeting after the selectboard approved a short-term rental ordinance in November. Adams was at his home on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

David Adams, of Fairlee, Vt., collected signatures for a special Town Meeting to be held to discuss the town's short-term rental ordinance. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

David Adams, of Fairlee, Vt., collected signatures for a special Town Meeting to be held to discuss the town's short-term rental ordinance. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A special Town Meeting will be held in Fairlee, Vt., on Feb. 24 to discuss and vote on a short-term rental ordinance the selectboard approved in early November. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A special Town Meeting will be held in Fairlee, Vt., on Feb. 24 to discuss and vote on a short-term rental ordinance the selectboard approved in early November. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-20-2024 9:01 PM

FAIRLEE — Residents will vote on whether to overturn a newly approved short-term rental ordinance during a special Town Meeting on Saturday.

The Feb. 24 meeting is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at Fairlee Town Hall. Residents will have an opportunity to discuss the ordinance, which the Selectboard approved in early November.

Fairlee resident David Adams collected more than 199 signatures from voters to petition the town to hold the special meeting after the Selectboard approved the ordinance. Since the petition was received, the ordinance’s implementation has been on hold. If residents — by simple majority — vote to overturn the ordinance, it would be a binding decision.

Adams, who does not currently have a short-term rental but is considering starting one, sees the town’s ordinance as overreach. He said that the process of enacting it did not include sufficient input from residents.

“I’m of the belief that it requires an open, bigger conversation than simply the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Selectboard and whoever puts it together,” Adams said in a phone interview.

As he went around town gathering signatures, he said he encountered many people who knew nothing about the ordinance.

The ordinance — which applies to places that are rented out for fewer than 32 days, excluding hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts — requires owners to apply for a $165 permit and get approval from the town’s Development Review Board, Zoning Administrator Chris Brimmer said.

They also must pay $35 to be on a short-term rental registry, which has to be renewed each year. To obtain a permit, owners must have their short-term rentals undergo a fire inspection, have on-site parking and have no more than two occupants per bedroom, according to the town’s bylaws. Seasonal dwellings — which are typical around Lake Morey — would be allowed to be used as short-term rentals for a maximum of 22 weeks per year.

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“It is a way to ensure good behavior by people who are renting and staying within limits that are allowed by their wastewater,” Brimmer said, citing recent bacteria issues at the lake. “Sometimes these things are like having a family reunion at a lake house that’s already got a marginal septic system every single weekend.”

Brimmer, who has been Fairlee’s zoning administrator since 2012, said that one of the reasons towns have had to take action is because state leaders have not. That has led to different regulations in different municipalities, which has caused confusion among property owners and town officials.

“The patchwork is starting to become a problem,” he said. “The state needs to take it up. It really does.”

Fairlee’s short-term rental ordinance grew out of land-use bylaws the town approved in a vote last July. The ordinance gives the town the ability to enforce the bylaw and for town officials to have an idea of what is going on in town, Selectboard Chairman Lance Mills said.

“Some folks that are doing short-term rentals do form LLCs to do that, but again we can’t be aware of it,” Mills said in a phone interview. “We’re not aware of who is doing this unless we check the websites but even that … it’s not a good way to do that.”

While Fairlee — which is home to Lake Morey and Lake Fairlee — has always been a destination for visitors, where they stay has changed.

“I think when they started out, people lived in the houses and they rented it out when they left,” Mills said. “Now we’re getting into a situation where people are buying properties to do a short-term rental with those properties, and that’s a different thing.”

He also said there are concerns about safety, such as making sure all short-term rentals have smoke detectors and appropriate emergency exits.

“There’s just no regulation. We can’t know that, whereas with a hotel, we do know that they are appropriately renting places. It’s the same thing with apartment houses,” said Mills, who emphasized that the town is not looking to ban short-term rentals. “There’s some sort of regulation there, that we know they’re up to snuff, that we know they can be rented.”

Meanwhile, Adams wonders if the ordinance is even necessary, as he said that he has found no data that point to specific issues with short-term rentals in town.

“I’m not really sure yet what is driving this ordinance in the first place,” he said. “That’s one of the things that sort of baffles me.”

He also does not agree with one of the purpose statements in the ordinance which reads: “To limit or prevent long-term rentals from being replaced with short-term rentals.” Adams said he used to rent properties on a long-term basis and had encountered renters who did not pay their rent.

“There’s a disconnect from somebody who has rented long-term and had that type of experience; short-term makes lot more sense,” he said.

Should Fairlee voters overturn the town’s ordinance, the Selectboard could make changes and try to adopt another version, Town Administrator Ryan Lockwood wrote in an email.

“This could happen if the discussion around the ordinance reveals some necessary changes,” Lockwood said. “The voters could overturn and then encourage the board to adopt an amended version at a future (Selectboard) meeting.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.