Selectmen Mull Ordinance To Require Short-Term Rental Registry

After receiving complaints from a number of residents about loud noise and disturbances at some short-term rental properties in town, Bethlehem selectmen are mulling an ordinance that would require the owners of such properties to register with the town and provide contact information in the event the town needs to reach out to them for a complaint or emergency. (Photo by Robert Blechl)

BETHLEHEM — Bethlehem was becoming a popular place for visitors before the pandemic, but COVID-19 helped kick the numbers of short-term rental properties and the people who stay at them into high gear.

The upside is it brings money to the town from guests dining out and frequenting local businesses and from property owners, a number of them purchasing properties in just the past year, paying property taxes.

The downside, says some residents who live near rental houses and have lodged complaints with selectmen, are some noisy and disrespectful renters popping off fireworks late into the night or blaring loud music at parties.

Currently, if there is a problem, the town has no means of contacting some short-term rental property owners, a good share of whom live out of town or out of state.

During their meeting on Monday, selectmen discussed the option of adopting an ordinance that would require property owners who use their properties for short-term rentals to register with the town, possibly pay a small fee, and provide a contact number in the event they need to be reached.

“A number of towns have had concerns about short-term rentals,” said Selectman Bruce Caplain. “I think they get a bad rap, which is why some towns have taken action against them for a number of reasons, rightfully or not. Some of it is excessive noise and parties.”

Some people also say that short-term rentals take affordable housing, which is in short supply in the North Country, off the market, he said.

Many short-term rentals are listed on Airbnb and VBRO.

Select board member Veronica Morris said she put a lot of research into what neighboring towns have done in terms of ordinances and looked into applicable New Hampshire laws, one of which states that if a short-term rental is advertised the owner must register with the state and pay meals and rooms tax and include the tax registration number in the listing.

While Airbnb will collect the tax on behalf of property owners and remit to the New Hampshire taxing authority, none of the VRBO listings she said she looked at for Bethlehem had their tax number.

But the tax is used to benefit local schools and it’s important for Bethlehem as a town to get back as many meals and rooms taxes as possible, said Morris.

As for fireworks, New Hampshire law states they cannot be used by anyone under 21 and users must have the permission of the property owner, she said.

“All the folks with short-term rentals can either give or not give that permission,” said Morris. “All they have to do is communicate that to their renters and their renters will know.”

And ordinances that Bethlehem has on the books, include a noise ordinance prohibiting loud noise after 10 p.m., can be included with the online listing, she said, adding that some kind of way to help property owners communicate with their renters might stop the worst of the problems.

“That may help meet the needs of the tourist economy and some of the property owners and the residents, to have this balance,” said Morris.

Currently, though, if problems or emergencies arise, the town can have difficulty contacting property owners if the property is in a family trust, registered to an LLC, or they’re out of state, she said.

“There are all kinds of reasons why we would need to get in contact with somebody and we don’t really have a way to do that anymore,” said Morris.

Enforcing the town’s noise ordinance can put teeth behind some of the problems, but having a short-term rental registry makes a lot of sense, said Caplain.

There might not be a fee, but there would be a list with the contact information for the responsible person, and if police receive complaints about a property, they would know who to contact, he said.

“I think that’s a reasonable approach,” said Caplain.

Addressing housing needs for families, Morris said a property owner who might have a vacancy could also be contacted.

Selectman April Hibberd said in her role as town welfare director she sees a chronic shortage of affordable housing as a big problem and said in the past year the town has had more homeless people in need than in all the years combined in her time as director.

Caplain and Morris said for a short-term rental registry to be effective it would have to be an ordinance.

Some towns, said Morris, levy fines for property owners not registering, and a number of violations can lead to revocation.

While every property could begin by having a permit, if it becomes a nuisance, that permit can be reviewed, she said.

“The great thing about the fines and fees is they come to us,” said Morris.

Nancy Strand, who lives on Mt. Cleveland Road, said she agrees with the fee.

“If they make money on this investment, then they can make the town some money, especially if they are not going to live here,” she said.

Strand brought some numbers from August to selectmen and said 53 percent of homes in Bethlehem are owned by the homeowner, nearly 30 percent are currently vacant, and 20 percent of Bethlehem properties are short-term rentals, which is much higher than the national short-term rental average.

Two short-term rental property owners weighed in, saying that the properties generate a lot of money for the town and any ordinance should not be restrictive.

Among them was Meg Stewart, who said she enjoys spending time at her second home in Bethlehem with her husband, Brian, and three children and is very respectful of the noise ordinance and she clearly states their rules and that ordinance to anyone renting at their home.

Lumping all short-term rental property owners into the same category is unfair, she said.

“My understanding is the town does not maintain a contact list of short-term rental owners,” said Stewart. “This is part of the reason my family was drawn to Bethlehem, because it seemed to be an open-minded community that allowed freedom and autonomy to its residents. It is an unrealistic expectation to expect the homeowner to be on-premise 24/7. I would propose, as suggested previously, keeping an organized list of people who do have short-term rentals that the town could use as a resource guide if a problem were to arise.”

Not all short-term rental property owners in Bethlehem are absentee landlords, said Morris.

“I think we should support the short-term rental business,” said Caplain. “The B&B [bed and breakfast] business is sort of going away. We don’t have that many hotels. When we try to bring people in to the town, where are they going to stay? It is the new wave, the way people travel, and I think we need to embrace it in a way, but make sure there are controls around it, responsibility around it, and we have a way to get in contact with the owners.”

Without an ordinance, there would be no way to get every property owner on the list, he said.

“It’s going to be the people who don’t do it are the ones you really need to do it,” said Caplain. “Those are the ones you need to get in touch with. We don’t want to make it a very restrictive ordinance, but if we have an ordinance that requires people to register then we can discuss if a fee should be imposed.”

Morris said the board can also have a discussion as to whether the ordinance, which would go to a public hearing, would be put before voters at the March town meeting.

In September, Franconia selectmen, receiving concerns from their residents about short-term rental properties and loud noise and disturbances, held a public hearing to discuss changes to that town’s breach of the peace ordinance.

Franconia town officials also said their town has difficulty in contacting some short-term rental property owners, even though the owners are supposed to register their properties with the town.

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